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We are excited to announce that the latest volume of History in the Making has now been published! This process has been difficult, but incredibly rewarding and we are excited to share the product of this hard work with you.
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The legacy of Alberto Fujimori is controversial. While he has numerous supporters across Peru and abroad such as our previous interviewee Ella Carkagis, among Peruvians born in the 1980s and 1990s in particular, opposition is common. In this profile, Alexis Castro Robles interviews Carkagis’ eldest daughter, Marianella, who gives us an insight into the ‘other side’ of Fujimori’s regime and also how she perceives Peru’s future now that Alberto Fujimori has received a ‘humanitarian pardon.’
Alberto, Kenji and Keiko Fujimori (Image courtesy of ‘Peru 21’ newspaper)
Marianella, although you were in your teenage years during the late 1990s, do you remember what politics was like at that time from your family and school?
At that time, everyone was afraid of everything. Our parents sent us to school with fear, because the terrorists chose targets randomly. I remember that the street lights blew up and that we stayed in the dark. There were always candles in my house. There were soldiers in the streets and curfews quite often. We could not leave the house after 7pm. I remember the terror that we felt walking past a car that looked suspicious in the street, because it could be a ‘coche bomba’ (car bomb). At school they taught us to be prepared at all times. We simulated emergency situations. They also taught us to shout a warning if we heard a very loud sound, because it could be a bomb.
Your mother was supportive of Fujimori’s measures in granting the military extensive powers to challenge ‘terror’ by arresting suspected rebels and trying them in secret military courts with few legal rights. What are your thoughts?
Terrorism was so bad in the 90s that the government had to declare war. We believed that there was a good side (the state) and a bad side (the terrorists) but we were wrong. The country was consumed by a witch hunt. Any man could say that his neighbor was a terrorist and without evidence the military could take him from his house in the early morning and ‘disappear’ him. Villagers were taken from their homes by soldiers and executed. They raped the women. The buses that went to the provinces were dangerous for this reason. We were terrorised both by the terrorists and by the military, who far from protecting us, took advantage of the power granted them to torture, rape and kill.
Do you believe Peruvians recognise the human rights violations committed by Fujimori and the military? If not, what impedes this recognition?
Fujimori was a showman. He went on national television with boots, helmet and carrying cement to every school he built. He appeared to help with everything, while also robbing his people and murdering us. He did many works to keep us quiet. His government was bloodthirsty. We Peruvians are so poor in education that we are not able to understand that “the lesser evil” is not good. “That he who steals but does work” is not good. We are not used to thinking about our neighbor. We think only of ourselves and our hunger. There are many people who know what Fujimori has done and do not care because they were “necessary deaths”. No death is necessary. Homicide is a crime.
What do you think about the mass forced sterilisation that affected around 300 000 Indigenous Peruvian women, many of them without anaesthesia, in the late 1990s?
It was simply inhumane. There are people like my mother who say it was necessary. Machismo did not allow women to make the decision to no longer have children and many thanked the government for having sterilised them. But many women without children and very young were also sterilised, without anaesthetics and without knowing what was being done to them. They were treated like cows. When my mum says it was necessary, I answer: What if it had been your daughter? What if it had been me? She remains silent. Those people who were mistreated could be any of us and we should all repudiate a fact as execrable as that. The solution was and is in education for all. Machismo exists because there is no education.
Peruvian women march against Keiko Fujimori, drawing attention to women’s rights, Keiko’s political ties with her father and her questionable human rights stance. (Image courtesy of ‘Diario UNO’ newspaper)
Fujimori’s sterilisation of women was highlighted by opponents during the presidential campaign of Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko. For example 30 000 protesters in Lima expressed their discontent in April 2016. Do you think these protesters feared a possible return to her father’s dynasty?
Yes indeed. The same people who were with [Alberto] Fujimori, are also on the side of Fujimori’s daughter. Her government would be a terrible blow against democracy.
Do you think the protests were a response of the Peruvian Left? Or just those who supported for the current Peruvian President, Pedro Pablo Kucyznski (‘PPK’)?
‘PPK’ won the elections thanks to Keiko Fujimori. He won because we were against her winning. He did not win on his own merit. The PPK government is another mistake to avoid the greater evil. He is a president who has done nothing for us like so many others. Our streets are infested with criminals.
Lastly, Alberto Fujimori has received the ‘humanitarian pardon’ for his ailing health by Kuczynski in December 2017. What do you think about this decision?
‘PPK’ sold our country when he pardoned Fujimori. He did not care about the hundreds of mothers who still cry for their unborn children. Nor the disappeared parents who could not raise their children. Not even the hundreds of women who were harmed and mistreated by the regime. Kuczynski was on the verge of losing the presidency for a fujimorista coup d’etat. He betrayed every Peruvian by pardoning him.
Alexis Castro Robles
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Latin American history and politics has taken an interesting turn of late. On 24 December 2017, the current Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski granted an official ‘humanitarian pardon’ to former President Alberto Fujimori, whilst new Chilean President Sebastian Piñera only today declared his Cabinet, including members who have links to the Pinochet regime.
In this blog post, Alexis Castro Robles interviews Ella Carkagis, a nurse assistant living in Sydney since 2011, who supports Fujimori’s actions. In both Peru and abroad, Fujimori’s legacy attracts both praise and criticism, most notably his actions in ending the 1980-1997 terror of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) for the people of Peru. He is criticised for having achieved this at the cost of breaching human rights which led him being sentenced to twenty-five years in prison in 2009.
What were your experiences during the era of terror in Peru? Did you agree with Fujimori’s measure to overcome this by granting the military extensive powers to arrest suspected rebels and try them in secret military courts with few legal rights?
During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, I was always scared to leave my house and, like everyone I knew, there was always the thought of whether you would come back alive. I lived in a time where if you saw a package in the street, you thought it was a bomb, where electric light towers would continuously blow up and you had to stay in the dark. No one in the world would like to live in constant fear and terror of dying anytime. During this time, I was also at university and, as many of us lost numerous semesters, we had to dedicate ourselves to throw stones in the street burn tires and challenge the police for a better education and end corruption. Fujimori himself once entered my university to drill the students in the courtyard, hoisting our national flag, making us place our hands on our chests and singing the national anthem. He told us that we were students whose duty was to study for our country and parents.
I agree with Fujimori’s measure as he made sure to capture the leaders of the Shining Path and MRTA, who together caused the deaths of over 60,000 people. While Fujimori was accused of killing nine La Cantuta University students, I believe that as a president of Peru, if nine killed hundreds of people, I would have also avoided further deaths by killing these students. Why defending the rights of nine people? What about the rights of thousands and thousands of people killed by terrorism in Peru during the 80s and 90s?
What about the mass forced sterilisation that affected around 300 000 Indigenous Peruvian women, many of them without anaesthesia, by the Fujimori regime in the late 1990s? Do you think it was an act of abuse and genocide?
At that time, I was a school teacher in a very impoverished area of Peru’s capital city, Lima. I know for a fact that some of my students’ mothers underwent these sterilisations since they already had too many children, their economic situation was critical, and they even told me they were grateful for it. I agree to sterilise women with numerous children who are in extreme poverty without the possibility of giving a good quality of life to their children who could end up begging in the street and have to prostitute themselves under bridges.
Do you think his program has improved the lives of Indigenous women?
I believe there has been progress for Indigenous Peruvian women, but it should be sustained. I have travelled around Peru in the 2000s and I have seen great progress for these women in the main provincial cities, but we still need to reach more remote villages where populations live in towns that border other countries and poverty is rampant.
How has the Fujimori regime influenced geographical regions in the 1990s?
Fujimori ordered highways and roads not only in Lima but in more remote and poor provinces like Ilo, Abancay and Ayacucho. He also facilitated medical centres and schools across the nation, including one in front of my house. That is why those in the provinces favour Fujimori. In the 2016 presidential elections for instance, you can see people in the poor provinces such as Ayacucho voted for Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko in contrast to the vote in Lima.
Map depicting votes for the second round of the 2016 Peruvian Presidential Elections by Province (Image via Wikipedia). Pedro Pablo Kuczynski won the election with a runoff breakdown of 50.12% against Keiko Fujimori’s 49.88%.
If Keiko Fujimori received support in the last elections, why do you think over 30,000 protesters across Lima expressed their discontent during her campaign in April 2016? Do you think they were fearing a possible return to her father’s dynasty?
The majority of these protesters were university students who are too young to remember what people like me suffered during the era of terrorism in Peru and what Fujimori achieved in the 1990s. All these young people who have no memory of our dark past are part of the Peruvian Left today and hate Fujimori for the death of nine terrorist students from La Cantuta University. They voted for the current Peruvian President, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (‘PPK’).
I do think that it was fear motivating the Peruvian Left who found in university students a willing bastion but voting for ‘PPK’ was a serious error. And of course, the Left understood Fujimori’s crime in killing innocent people. Terrorism will not return if the Fujimoristas again have power.
Now that Alberto Fujimori has received the ‘humanitarian pardon’ for his ailing health by Kuczynski, are you grateful for this decision? Or do you think it was an act of convenience from Kuczynski as Fujimori’s son, Kenji, helped him to survive a bid of impeachment?
Fujimori deserved the pardon for having been for me and much of the population the best president that Peru had. ‘PPK’ was dishonest and he should have pardoned him earlier, not at the precise moment that his position was at risk.
Alexis Castro Robles
Alexis is a final year BA student at UNSW aiming to do Honours in 2019, focusing in topics relating to Latin American History and subaltern studies.
The years 1980 to 2000 in Peru have been given a special name in the Quechua language used in parts of the country: ‘sasachakuy tiempo’ or the ‘difficult times’.
During those two decades, a Maoist rebel group known as the Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso) fought what was effectively a civil war against the Peruvian government and armed forces.
The war was bloody and protracted, with massacres and torture of combatants and civilians common, and both sides guilty of committing atrocities. By the time it ended, approximately 70,000 Peruvians had died and 500,000 people had been internally displaced.
This traumatic period in Peruvian politics has left two distinct legacies that still compete for space in the country’s modern public memory. Continue reading
In 1966, whilst condemning the use of violence in response to a racist United States, Martin Luther King Jr famously said that “a riot is the language of the unheard”. If rioting is the language of the unheard, then music is what gives this language life. Beyond the ubiquitous western obsession with Dylan, Joplin, the Beatles, or Patti Smith, equally impressive is the role Argentine rock- rock nacional- punk and heavy metal played in countering the country’s repressive political dynamics.
Whilst these genres spawned a number of artists that would influence the national music scene to this day, we focus in the contributions of three seminal artists whose responses to the 1970s and ’80s dictatorship contributed to a profound shift in Argentina’s popular culture landscape. Charly Garcia, Los Violadores, and V8 each represent the most complete examples of how rock, punk, and heavy metal respectively interacted with the mainstream culture of the time.
In March 1976, the Argentine military seized power and began a dictatorship that would mire the country’s democratic and cultural expression for the next seven years. Referred to by the military junta as ‘the process of national re-organisation’, or ‘el proceso’, this was justified by the government as a necessary response to left-wing ‘subversives’ who were allegedly undermining Argentina’s political and economic stability.
The dictatorship crushed political expression and social outreach. Beyond the military’s political opponents, the hunt for so-called ‘subversives’ also forced journalists, students, social workers, and religious charities into submission. According to the report handed down by the National Commission on the Disappeared in 1984 –Nunca Más– at least 8,960 people were ‘disappeared’ or killed by state hands during the dictatorship and a further 1,300 were detained (human rights groups estimate the true figures at around 30,000). Unofficial estimates put the total at 30,000.
Aside from its impact on broader civil society, the dictatorship also stifled the Argentine arts scene by mandating a puritanical and state-controlled Christian morality and limiting independent cultural expression through censorship and restrictions on public gatherings. Nonetheless, music’s ‘harmful’ influence still infiltrated Argentina’s youth during this time.
In an interview with the Argentina Independent, historian and journalist Sergio Pujol stated that throughout this period the folklore subgenre known as ‘Nueva Canción‘ (New Song) was implicitly associated with the guerillas and left-wing politics, and imbued with notions of protest, testimony, and complaint. Further, the rock nacionalcritique “was aimed at the bourgeois way of life from a hippie consciousness and a countercultural style: closer to [Herbert] Marcuse than Che [Guevara].”
For this reason, junta member Emilio Massera paralleled rock with Marxism and other ‘plagues’ of modernity in a famous speech at the University of El Salvador in 1977. At the same time, other means of dissent such as journalism foundered. Pujol notes that even Rodolfo Walsh’s famous ‘Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta’ was restricted in its social reception, leaving “little more than rock in those years.”
At the start of the dictatorship, rock nacional occupied a fraught political space. Leftist Argentines favoured the politically explicit nature of folk, with figures such as assassinated Chilean musician Victor Jara dominating the popular imagination of what the political struggle should entail —collectivism, greater economic equality, and liberation from foreign imperialism.
Rock, on the other hand, equaled hedonism.
In ‘Rock and Dictatorship’, an exploration of the historical evolution and role of rock nacional during this period, Pujol summarises general leftist sentiments: “The music of the people was not —could not be— progressive music. Exceptions excluded, rock musicians were seen as harmless addicts, people a little naïve who perhaps could not understand the nature of imperialism and preferred to lose themselves in the illusions of music in place of the struggle for a better world.”
At the same time, rock national was far removed from the austere cultural dynamics prescribed by the military in its search for “positive and essential” national values. Hence, it received little traction from either side of the trenches.
Charly García was one of the central figures of rock nacional during the 1970s and ’80s, whose current cultural reach remains strong. García was instrumental in the bands Sui Generis, La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros, and Serú Girán and subsequently forged a successful solo career. His music was not directly rooted in the notion of political struggle but was often largely allegorical and provided an important means through which Argentines could identify with life under an unnamed repressor.
For example, his 1982 solo album ‘Yendo de la Cama al Living’ (‘Going from the Bed to the Living Room’) expressed the feelings of surveillance which many had encountered in the previous decade and which caused many rock nacional artists —including Javier Martinez from Manal, Billy Bond, and Leon Gieco— to leave Argentina to guarantee their personal safety. Acting as a counterpoint to songs about the social uncertainty caused by the Falklands/Malvinas War and the dictatorship, in ‘Collective Unconscious’ García assured the public that despite the social ‘transformer’ the dictatorship represented, the pulse of the country would emerge vibrant following these events: “Nurse your freedom, you will always carry her/Inside your heart/They can corrupt you, you can forget her/But she is always there.”
The following year, García would remember those who had fallen in the dictatorship and envision a return to democracy in his song ‘The Dinosaurs’. “The friends from the neighborhood may disappear/ The singers on the radio may disappear/ The ones who are in the newspapers may disappear/ The person who you love may disappear…/But the dinosaurs are going to disappear.”
Experts like Pujol and Dario Marchini both challenge the tendency to characterise rock nacional musicians as highly politicised due to the abstract nature of their lyrics and their distance from political dissidence. But for Pujol, as rock nacional became more popular throughout the 1970s and ’80s it also took on a political role in the way it sustained the public sphere.
In an interview with Buenos Aires daily Página 12, Pujol recognised the capacity of rock to cradle solidarity by bringing people together at concerts. “There, rock literally was physically at the forefront, with its public knowing that after jumping up and down at a full Luna Park [Buenos Aires venue], the police would be outside bringing their paddy wagons to get everyone in jail.”
With public gatherings restricted during this time, both touring and choreography became highly politicised acts in themselves. Additionally, with rock nacional not necessarily being embraced as politically explicit music during this period, its capacity to criticise the weakness and complicity of Argentine social institutions and customs with the human rights abuses of this time was, and remains, strong. In Pujol’s opinion, “the most interesting thing Argentine rock had to say, and especially García, was not so much a critique of authoritarianism of the military as the genuflection of Argentine society. Before, during, and after the dictatorship.”
In the late 1970s, punk was a scarcely recognised genre in Latin America. Beyond the reaches of Argentina, Los Saicos had emerged in Peru during the mid-1960s as possible pioneers of the genre worldwide, around a decade before punk arrived in Britain. In Argentina, Los Voladores (The Flying Ones) formed at the end of the 1970s, in 1981 changing their name to Los Violadores (The Violators).
The documentary ‘Ellos Son Los Violadores‘ (‘They are the Violators’) directed by Juan Riggarozi, explores both the band’s etymology and political impact. In a period where the creation of a distinctly ‘Argentine’ identity was mandated by the dictatorship, members of the band cite foreign artists as inspirational.
The band’s founder and guitarist, Pedro Braun, travelled to London in 1977 and says his artistic trajectory was shaped by its punk scene, whereas singer Pil Trafa visited the United States in 1978. Their first ever concert was in the affluent Belgrano area of Buenos Aires in 1978, and the following year the working class Pil Trafa wrote the defiant song ‘Represión’ —which the band started playing in 1981, when Pil Trafa joined the group— clearly delivering on Pedro Braun’s desire “to cause a shock among society and the people.”
In ‘Represión’ the band juxtaposed scenes of repression in all facets of daily life with the broken promise of economic growth and national progress under the dictatorship: “Repression behind your house/ Repression in the kiosk at the corner/ Repression in the bakery/ Repression 24 hours a day/ Long weeks sacrificed/Tough work, very little pay/ Unemployed people, it doesn’t matter/ where is, beasts, the equality we desire?”
In this way, Los Violadores were distinct from the rock nacional artists in the manner in which they drew the social battle lines and aimed to challenge what they perceived as the complicity of civil society with the dictatorship. The band’s manifesto of defiance was christened with the song “Uno, dos, ultraviolento’” formally released in 1985. This song references Anthony Burgess’ classic novella on free will ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and satirized conservative Argentine society, “The bad guys in leather/ We want to have fun/ With my Drugs/ Off to the attack we go.
Nonetheless they were not widely patronised by leftist activists, with Pedro Braun stating that “it was like we were historical aliens. The way we stayed together: it was us against the world.”
In this period, the band also collaborated with German punk band Die Toten Hosen to help them tour Buenos Aires in 1980. The German band had contemporaneously released a single entitled ‘Hier Kommt Alex’ (‘Here Comes Alex’) also referencing ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and, like Los Violadores, maintained a strong anti-fascist stance throughout their musical careers.
Resistance to the dictatorship through music was also present in the heavy metal scene.
V8, one of the most important heavy metal bands in Argentine history, emerged at the end of this period. Given the military government’s highly Christian sensitivity and the ‘hippie’ dimension of Latin folk music, the visceral and confronting nature of V8’s lyrics and performance style were designed to shock civil society.
They dressed solely in black when performing and refused to participate in a concert put on by the military government supporting Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas War. And in a time when repression was the norm, heavy metal fans found the concerts of bands such as V8 or Riff to be release they needed. This often ended in violence.
In the documentary ‘Heavy Metal’, directed by Juan Astrain, vocalist Alberto Zamarbide stated that their music “was a shout of resistance, very particular in the ‘80s —like punk, like heavy metal… the enemy was the military government.”
“V8 was a catalyst for everything that was being brewing within the youth,” adds former drummer Gustavo Rowek. “It focused all the hate towards the hippies, as a generation that had absolutely failed with their ideas.”
Nowhere was their dissent more apparent than in the particularly explicit song ‘Destruction’: “I no longer believe in anything/ I no longer believe in you/ I do not believe in anyone/ because no one believes in me/ …but luckily I can see/ What the decision/ The final judgment/ Will be the solution, destruction.”
This rebellious atttitude was not without consequences, either for the musicians or the fans. “Walking around the street, wearing black clothes and long hair, we would end up inside [in prison], it was always the same. I was completely used to it. Sometimes I talk to younger kids and they don’t know the inside of a prison. We knew all the police stations in the City and the Greater Buenos Aires,” laughs Rowek.
As in the case of Los Violadores and Charly García with punk and rock nacional respectively, V8 inspired a new wave of Argentine heavy metal bands from the mid to late 1980s, both increasingly professional and prolific.
Argentina, Politics, and Music Today
Whilst many of its aspects have since been forgotten or cast aside, one of dictatorship’s strongest (albeit unwilling) legacies isthe music produced during that period.
Whereas prior to 1976 rock nacional was a formative genre often heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon rock, blues, jazz, and folk, today it is a source of national pride. Similarly, military attempts at censorship merely led to the emergence of punk and heavy metal in Argentina as popular sources of cultural expression during and after the dictatorship.
Today in Buenos Aires, a visit to a punk venue such as Salón Puerreydon will soon reveal Los Violadores or even V8 as old favourites. On the city’s airwaves, not a day passes by without the broadcast of Charly García and his contemporaries.
Garcia’s fabled and troublesome dinosaurs, meanwhile, faded to black long ago.
Cameron McPhedran has traveled extensively through the Americas and lived in Buenos Aires and Berkeley. He is currently studying a Masters of Criminal Justice and Criminology at the University of New South Wales, and had worked as a reviewer and editor for History in the Making.
This post originally appeared on the Argentina Independent, and we thank them for allowing us to republish it here.
The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000 led to a revival of literary and public interest in antiquity and the historical epic that had remained dormant for thirty-six years – the last successful historical epic about ancient Rome was Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
While historians tend to disseminate history through scholarly literature, directors disseminate historical narratives through film and storytelling. Both may employ different techniques, methodologies, approaches and target different audiences, but their role remains the same: they interpret, revise and produce a selective history that aligns with contemporary imagination. It is this similarity that has facilitated a partial reconciliation between the two; filmmakers aim to teach history by employing historical consultants to ensure historical ‘accuracy’, while historians turn to film to view, teach, and learn about history and its representation. To analyse film as both an art and text provides insight into the popular imagination of society toward historical events.
HBO’s Rome (2005-7) and Popular Imagination
While Gladiator inspired the return of the epic both in cinema and among historians, the HBO television series Rome shook popular conceptions of ancient Rome. Bruno Heller, executive producer and writer, stated that the primary aim of the series was to ‘deliver something fresh’, namely a historically stimulating and entertaining show that did not ‘take a kind of pastiche approach’ and allowed the audience to engage.[i] Christopher Lockett, a historian of film and popular culture, argued that Rome accounted for popular conceptions of history by deviating from standard depictions to incorporate a series of ‘accidental histories’, whereby the history of Rome is determined by unintended consequences, events and circumstances, that both thematically and narratively, worked toward ‘subtle dislocations of unitary and monolithic power and historical agency’ often found within individual actors like Julius Caesar.[ii] In doing so, the series is just as much about Rome during Caesar’s rule as it is about contemporary conceptions of popular culture and history. In order to analyse this interplay of history and imagination, a comparative study of reviews on websites such as IMDB message boards is illuminative.
According to four online message boards – IMDB, Amazon, Tv.com and Metacritic – reviewers who gave the show ten out of ten stars did so primarily due to its ability to be both historically accurate and entertaining. The general public admired the series’ ability to incorporate both ‘popular and intelligent entertainment and scholarship’ by interweaving ‘historical authenticity’ and ‘quality storytelling’ appropriate for television.[iii] While many recognised that Rome failed in some respects to achieve historical accuracy, they asserted that history itself was an act of storytelling, a ‘piece of art’ that can ideally be moulded to suit the entertaining nature of television.[iv] Reviewers tended to conclude that by playing around with historical facts, the series was able to be appropriately dramatic whereupon ‘fiction helped the story flow’ enough to ‘feel at Rome during Caesar’s day’.[v] By drawing together film as a form of art with history as storytelling, the reviewers emphasise the vitality of the filmmaker’s creative freedom in order to attract and educate the audience.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the creators of Rome attempt to use their creative licence to incorporate ‘historically marginalised and historically invisible actants’ such as Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus – the former a legionary, the latter a centurion – in order to demonstrate how unintentional consequences can shape the course of Roman history.[vi] One reviewer extensively commented on the series’ unique interplay of history and fiction, stating:
What Rome does most successfully, I think, is to make the two least historical characters the most memorable. While Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are mentioned only in passing in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, here they dominate the storyline, offering a credible backdrop for the main ‘historical’ events and characters whose exploits and fame are well known to the history books. How fitting was it that in the series finale the coldly calculating Octavian, the future Augustus and first emperor of Rome, shakes the hand of lowly plebe Titus Pullo, his only true friend in the world…[vii]
For classicist Monica S. Cyrino it is precisely this interplay that enables Rome to ‘invite the audience into the grand historical account’ and offer viewers ‘a close-up of how history is made’.[viii] By creating a personalised account of these two characters in the retelling of historical events, audiences were able to connect with the events and characters despite the boundaries of time. As one reviewer noted, by incorporating the characters of Pullo and Vorenus, the series was able to ‘remind us [the audience] that these figures were people in all the complexity of motivation that we experience in people today’ – an account that would not have been possible had the perspectives been rooted in aristocratic personalities like Caesar.[ix]
The result is a kind of history that is not driven but ridden; rather than a planned teleology devised by great men, the history of Rome is an accident, comprised of unforeseen circumstances that can be attributed to the problem of antiquity. Classicist Mary Beard’s analysis of the study of ancient history perfectly aligns with the methodology employed by the creators of Rome. Beard wrote:
At its best, the study of ancient history is as much about how we know as what we know. It involves an engagement with all the processes of selection, constructive blindness, revolutionary reinterpretation, and wilful misinterpretation that together produce the ‘facts’… out of the messy, confusing, and contradictory evidence that survives.[x]
Rome most certainly took advantage of the limitations surrounding antiquity to provide a perfect mix of historical accuracy and entertainment in an attempt to distinguish itself from its predecessors. It is precisely this deliberate restructuring of history that causes tensions between historians and filmmakers to emerge.
History in Images and History in Words
Central to the debate surrounding the tensions between history and film is historian Robert A. Rosenstone. Rosenstone highlights that academic historians who criticise film for deviating away from historical reality, fail to take into account that written history is just as much shaped by conventions of language and genre as film is by production and popular imagination, especially films representing the ancient past.[xi]
Rome attempts to connect to the audience through its unique medium of visual appeal; it has the advantage to cater to popular imaginations that no other medium can match in terms of depth and breadth of audience influence. Rome’s opening credits successfully offer a sense of familiarity by incorporating a mix of desire, spectacle and triumph with that of a tangible, believable and recognisable past that resonates with the values of the present. This mix is illustrated through the vibrant colours of graffiti written on Roman walls to present an authentic feel to the Roman lifestyle, against the backdrop of markets bustling with people from different social backgrounds.[xii] From the outset, Rome encapsulates everyday life and its peculiarities. As demonstrated in Rome’s dual aim to educate and entertain, the art of filmmaking itself cannot be subject to the standards of academic history.
The argument for historical accuracy is further muddied in relation to visual depictions of antiquity. Like filmmakers, scholars of antiquity have been known to incorporate historical reality and popular imagination in their literary works. Referred to as ‘sensational historiography’, ancient historians were convinced that historical amplification through the elaboration of historical events was a unique and distinguished practice as it generated ‘pleasing effects’ and in turn, stimulated and engaged audiences.[xiii] For example, ancient Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200 – 118 BC) comments on how Phylarchus (c. 215 BC) wrote not to present facts, but to engage his readers, writing ‘carelessly’ and never missing ‘an opportunity to emphasise the lurid details’.[xiv]
Similarly, Rome has taken on historically marginalised ancient figures like Atia Balba Caesonia (58 – 43 BC), the mother of emperor Augustus, and interwoven her in the series as Atia of the Julii. The makers of Rome took several liberties in their representation of Atia: while ancient historian Tacitus (c. 56 – 120 AD) describes her as a religiously pious and admired Roman matron, the Atia of Rome is canny, headstrong and sexually voracious.[xv] The makers of Rome willingly deviated from historical records in an attempt to appeal to popular imagination. One reviewer described Atia as a ‘voracious wonder… bad to her beautiful bones’, with others admiring her portrayal as an ‘ambitious political strategist’.[xvi] Perhaps this is why characters like Atia drew in over three million viewers per episode.[xvii]
Likewise, the inherent evidentiary problems of antiquity also bring about tensions between historical consultants and filmmakers. Without a ‘universally agreed factual basis for film’, filmmakers are left with no alternative but to succumb to imagination to tell stories of the ancient past.[xviii] If historians are consulted to provide advice on the representation of historical material, they are often called upon only after a script is written or when filming has begun. They rarely have direct involvement in historical filmmaking. Rosenstone contends that this tension primarily arises due to a lack of understanding: few filmmakers are trained historians and few historians are trained filmmakers.[xix] This relationship becomes difficult for historical consultants like Kathleen Coleman who discovered that preference for artistic innovation saw her historical advice be pushed aside in the making of Gladiator, which, for her, was an attitude indicative of the assumption that audiences take no interest in debates concerning historical authenticity in film.[xx]
Interestingly, however, for Jonathan Stamp, the historical consultant of Rome, it is the obligation of filmmakers to entertain the audience by telling stories and it is not for the historical consultant to say what did not happen, but to find ways of presenting an authentic past – to be authentic is to ‘get the details right’ through costumes, architectures, colours, movements, gestures, hairdos, and dynamism of interactions.[xxi] Only then can a historian generate debate among the audience as to the representation of history in film.[xxii] David Eldridge has observed, based on an assessment of three hundred films, that when producing an interpretation of the past, ‘the filmmaker has interacted with professional historiography, public attitudes, political utilisation of history and the conventions of the historical film genre to craft a narrative and style that convey a perspective on the past through cinematic means’.[xxiii] Both the historical consultant and filmmaker produce an interpretation of the past that aligns just enough with historical reality as it does with popular imagination. It is for this reason that Rome has proved popular, both for its appeal – storytelling, excellent writing and authentic historical detail – and repulsiveness – excessive sex, anachronism and soap opera tendencies.
The Challenge of the Visual
History and film are seldom grouped together as uniquely individual mediums of historical representation. Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, proclaimed that scholars tend to ‘speak only to themselves’ when they present a past that is dense with historical facts, leading to a rising disinterest toward historical studies from the public as history becomes too ‘anti-narrative’.[xxiv] On the other hand, historians like Robert Brent Toplin assert that while academic history can be ‘anti-narrative’, it exposes its readers to historiographical debates and multiple perspectives in a way that film cannot.[xxv] He thus concludes that films ‘rarely give audiences a sense of the challenges in historical representation’ as they ‘imply that the study of history is a tidy operation’.[xxvi] It is precisely this perspective of film that Rome challenges.
Rome proposes an alternative presentation of history; it attempts to challenge popular perceptions of history as being a linear sequence of events by offering an authentic retelling of Rome in which unpredictability reigns supreme. Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are treated as agents of change; both their luck and misfortune prove crucial to the events of Roman history as depicted in Rome. In this way, Rome is able to cleverly fashion the relationship between everyday history and the history of big events, and offer a new ‘branding’ of the historical epic. According to Stamp, the past helps filmmakers and historians alike to ‘brand’ stories in a way where the audience becomes familiar with a particular storyline or plot and thus rarely anticipate the end result. Rome has attempted to shift popular imagination away from the standard historical genre to ‘offer something fresh’.[xxviii] The world of Rome is therefore ‘much more exotic, and strange, and unexpected, and slightly bizarre than the Rome we have been given all these years’.[xxix]
Indeed, while in the last episode of season one Caesar falls to his death – a historical event universally known, Rome at the same time shook preconceived notions of Caesar’s death by making it appear as an accidental historical event.[xxx] Various historical accounts and literary works explain the multiple warnings Caesar received about his death. Ancient historians Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD) and Suetonius (c. 69 – 122 AD), for example, recount that Caesar set off to the Senate house after heavy persuasion from Brutus, surrounded by no other but his contemporaries.[xxxi] In Rome Caesar is accompanied by Lucius Vorenus, Marc Antony and surrounded by a few others. Though instructed by Caesar not to leave his side, Vorenus was pulled aside by Atia’s slave who reported troubles at home. Vorenus’ decision to leave the procession indirectly led to Caesar’s inevitable downfall. In Rome, it is the coincidences of everyday circumstances that trigger major historical events. Through the displacement of hierarchies between fictional and historical actors, the coherence of conventional historiography is transformed to illustrate the contingency of historical action.
By intertwining the history of big events with the history of the everyday, Rome encapsulates the complexities of Roman history in an attempt to, in the eyes of Stamp, ‘go through the portal of historical detail into an authentic archetypal world that resonates with people’.[xxxii] Of course, HBO’s success with Rome lies in its ability to realistically portray historical characters in a human context, like that of Pullo and Vorenus. In fact, in an online history forum one reviewer praised Rome for taking this approach, stating that when films or shows are made about Rome, they almost always portray the ‘glory’ and ‘achievements’, rarely capturing the ‘down-and-dirty everyday urban life’ of Rome.[xxxiii] Thus, Rome was able to shift popular conceptions of history away from just politics toward an intertwining with the social.
While classicists Alastair Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin state that Rome may never have had ‘regular orgies, saluted its emperors with raised arms, or condemned gladiators to die with a downward point of the thumb’, it is film that has allowed these representations of historical events to become ‘absolute mainstays of popular conceptions about Roman culture’.[xxxiv] This observation highlights the importance of the duality of both historical reality and popular imagination, for both film and written history. Without one or the other, neither medium will deliver a comprehensive understanding of historical events.
Mirela Kadrić has just finished a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences, with a major in History and Political Economy, at the University of Sydney. She is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History. She plans to write her honours thesis on the construction of Bosnian Muslim identity before, during and after the Bosnian War (1992-95). She is interested in historiography, theories of nationalism and national identity, and has extensively studied 19th-20th century Russian history.