I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 January 2023

Bust of Elagabalus Wikimedia By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53962341

Travels Through Time 218 The Mad Emperor with Harry Sidebottom. Well, there have been plenty of mad leaders over history, but Heliogabalus was right up there with them. In this episode, the producers trample on tradition as well by allowing Harry Sidebottom, historical fiction author whose most recent (non-fiction) book is The Mad Emperor to choose three separate years instead of just one. His first date is 1 May 218 CE when Heliogabalus’ grandmother sneaks him out of Emesa (modern day Homs) in Syria to start the revolt that will elevate him to the position of Emperor of Rome. He is only 14 years of age, and the empire is at the height of its power, but the wheels were starting to fall off when his predecessor Caracella was murdered by Macrinus. Heliogabalus was probably his cousin, but he portrayed himself as Caracella’s illegitimate son. The second date is Midsummer’s Day 220 when Heliogabalus holds a huge parade in Rome to demonstrate his new religion. The Romans enjoyed parades, but the PR with this one was all wrong. It was interpreted as a triumph over a defeated people as the procession headed off to the new temple that he had constructed to his god, Elagabalus. He seemed to delight in trashing convention: he married 5 times, including to a Vestal Virgin; he married men and delighted in taking the ‘lower’ position; he alienated everyone. The third scene is in March 222 when Heliogabalus is murdered on the orders of his grandmother after a controversial four-year reign. His grandmother promptly replaced him with another more tractable grandson, Alexander Severus. Sidebottom doesn’t completely see him as mad; instead he sees him as in the grip of a religious fervour.

The London Review of Books Is Alan Bennett still alive? He must be, because here he narrates his diary for 2022 On Failing to Impress the Queen. He’s been publishing his diary every year in the London Review of Books since 1983. He’ll be 89 this year, and he sounds every bit of it in this rather quotidian but elegiac reading that seems to feature a lot of funerals.

Kerning Cultures Exodus was originally published in Guernica magazine and is written and read by Zahra Hankir. After the disastrous explosion in Lebanon, the author returns to a city that she had left years before, as the economy crumbled around her. She tells the story of other people who tried to immigrate as well, part of the multiple waves of immigration from the 1890s onwards, after the Civil Wars and again with the war with Israel. The economic collapse in 2019 caused another wave, with the explosion just another symptom of economic and social collapse. How awful to watch your country just fall apart through incompetence and corruption, with no political solution in sight.

In Our Time (BBC). It’s only because I’m reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The World that I became familiar with Hatshepsut, the second historically confirmed female Pharaoh (the first was Sobekneferu). The episode Hatshepsut features Elizabeth Frood
(Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford- and a New Zealander), Kate Spence (Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology at the University of Cambridge) and Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt and Sudan at The Manchester Museum). It was common enough for women to rule as regents, but as Principal Wife of a Pharaoh and regent for her step-son, she declared herself full King and ruled for at least 15 years in her own right. As time went on, she was depicted as a male complete with false beard and male dress. Her step-son finally took over, and after reigning for about 20 years embarked on a project of erasing her likeness and reputation as Pharaoh, perhaps as a way of clearing the succession rather than as revenge (20 years really is a dish served cold).

You’re Dead to Me (BBC) also had an episode devoted to Hatshepsut featuring again Campbell Price from the Manchester Museum and comedian Kemah Bob- my God, what a grating voice! I don’t know how a serious historian could bear to go onto this program, but needs must, I suppose.

Emperors of Rome. Having dispatched Nero, the Emperors of Rome podcast has a little interlude here where they catch up on some biographical information about people mentioned in passing – namely Cicero, Livia, Seneca and Ovid. Episode XXV Livia looks at Augustus’ wife Livia, so memorably played by Sian Phillips in I Claudius. Livia was of impeccable patrician background, so she experienced the fall of the Republic. She and her first husband backed the wrong side in the Civil War, but she was granted amnesty. In 39BCE Octavian divorced his wife and married Livia while she was pregnant with a child from the first marriage, her husband having been ‘persuaded’ to divorce her. It seems that it was both a love match and a strategic power play on both their parts. They didn’t have any children together, which could have been grounds for divorce, but instead he adopted her children. She was very publicly visible, but there were rumours that she was responsible for a number of murders- a matter that Dr Rhiannon Evans doesn’t buy into. Certainly, her son Tiberius had mother issues. Episode XXVI Seneca the Younger is another stand-alone episode. Seneca the Younger is best known (notorious?) as the the tutor and advisor of Nero, but he was a respected stoic philosopher, a writer of tragedies, and one of the richest men in the Roman empire. He was born c. 4 BCE into a Spanish Equestrian family and his father Seneca the Elder (naturally) was a rhetorician. He didn’t get on with a number of Emperors: Caligula hated him but spared him his life because he was expected to die soon: Seneca had the last laugh here because he outlived Caligula and lived to relative old age. He also clashed with Messelina, Claudius’ wife and he was sent into exile at Corsica on rather spurious ‘adultery’ charges. He was recalled to Rome as Nero’s tutor- a rather bad advertisement for his teaching and philosophy. He was very popular as a writer during the Renaissance, and it is thought that his tragedies influenced Shakespeare’s writing. He decided to retire, but was forced to commit suicide after the Pisonian Conspiracy against Nero, even though he was probably innocent. He did so by bleeding out, but it was a difficult way to die and he advised his wife (who was also required to commit suicide) not to do it- in the end she didn’t have to suicide anyway. He was out of favour as a writer, but there has been a recent rehabilitation of his reputation. Episode XXVII Ovid started me off on a little podcast spree on Ovid. Ovid was born in 43 BCE (i.e. a year before Julius Caesar was assassinated) into a wealthy, but politically negligible, family. His wealth meant that he didn’t need patronage. He began writing while he was young, and achieved almost immediate popularity. His book ‘The Art of Love’ was seen as a subtle attack on Augustus’ marriage legislation, although there was a long time between publication and being forced into exile in Romania on the Black Sea on account of his writing. But exiled he was- and he died in exile, separated from his family. He is best known today for his work The Metamorphoses.

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