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Background to "Doctor Who" in 'Fires of Pompeii'

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The Tardis

The Tardis

CC Flickr User guy_david

In the BBC series of Doctor Who, when the Doctor, played by David Tennant, and his companion Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, reunite in the fourth season, the first place they travel to in the Tardis, is A.D. 79 Rome -- or so they think. The Doctor begins to wonder how he has missed the Colosseum and Donna notes that there aren't multiple hills, but only one -- a looming, threatening one. She and the Doctor simultaneously realize this must be Mt. Vesuvius and they've landed, not in Rome, at all, but about 130 miles southeast of the eternal city, at Pompeii. On Volcano Day.

In just that short space, there are a lot of allusions that people unfamiliar with Roman history might not understand. Although the scenes explain as much as is essential to the viewer's understanding, it's fun to be in the know. So, in the interest of letting you get as much of a kick out of 'The Fires of Pompeii' as I do every year around August 24, here are some of the references and allusions.

  1. 7 Hills of Rome
    Pictures and information on the (more than) 7 hills.

  2. Augur
    Before major undertakings in ancient Rome, the will of the gods was consulted by augurs.

  3. Caecilius
    Caecilius was a real resident of Pompeii, a banker, referenced not only in Doctor Who but Robert Harris' Pompeii. He appears in the Cambridge Latin Course. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about him, but some of his account records and part of his house survive. I include him here only because the Doctor tells Caecilius he will be remembered.

  4. Caveat emptor
    Latin for "let the buyer beware."

  5. Circus maximus
    The first and biggest circus in Rome was particularly suitable for chariot races Spectators could watch stadium events there or from the surrounding hillsides. The Circus Maximus was the site of the Great Games, Ludi Romani or Ludi Magni (September 5-19).

  6. Colosseum
    A sports and entertainment venue in Rome.

  7. Dormouse
    This is a silly element that tends to crop up in any discussion of Roman food. Whether or not the Romans ate the dormouse, it has become iconic. Mary Beard has hypothesized that the earlier in a book the dormouse is mentioned, the less well-researched the piece. Doctor Who is definitely not a piece of scholarly research, so the dormouse is completely appropriate.

  8. Etruscans
    The Etruscans lived in the area now known as Tuscany. They were very influential in the early years of Rome, both in terms of culture, especially religion, and politics. In the television series I, Claudius, Derek Jacobi (Claudius) was an antiquarian who studied what was even then the ancient language of the Etruscans.

  9. Fire - Nero
    The great fire in Rome of July A.D. 64, attributed in modern culture to a fiddle-playing Nero, and by Nero to Christians, seriously affected 10 of Rome's 14 districts. It left burned a large enough area on the hills (see 7 Hills above) for Nero to build his impressive domus aurea 'golden palace'.

  10. Forum
    The economic, political, and religious hub, town square, and center of all Rome.

  11. Hypocaust
    A subterranean radiant heating system especially noted in the heating system of the Roman baths.

  12. Medusa
    Medusa is the name of a once beautiful woman whose hair was transformed into snakes. One look at her would turn a man to stone. In Doctor Who, in the form 'Medusa Cascade,' it is the name of a rift in time and space.

  13. Pantheon
    The pantheon was a temple of all (pan) the gods (theon), built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 B.C.

  14. Penates (household gods)
    The household gods were so valued that when Aeneas left the burning city of Troy, he took little with him but the Penates, his aged father, his son, and his wife. The old man died en route and Aeneas misplaced his wife, but he kept the household gods safe. Each household had their own and the state had them, as well, in the Temple of Vesta.

  15. Pompeii
    An originally Oscan town in Campania, situated about five miles from Mt. Vesuvius, it had been built up during the reign of Augustus, with all the modern amenities. Then, less than a century later, it was covered by the eruption of the volcano that was Mt. Vesuvius, with debris that left what underlay it in remarkable condition. When in modern times the city was excavated, it was able to provide many details of ancient daily life.

  16. Sesterces
    Roman coins.

  17. Sibylline oracles
    Prophetic books consulted by the Romans in times of serious trouble in Rome. Prophecy in the ancient world.

  18. Smoke in sacrifice
    The sacrificial ritual included burning incense and animals for the gods, who were thought to appreciate the smoke.

  19. Spartacus
    Spartacus was a gladiator who led a slave rebellion that had remarkable success until Crassus and Pompey subdued it and left the rebellious slaves strung up on crucifixes, along the Appian Way.

  20. Status quo
    Latin for the current, existing state of affairs.

  21. Veni, vidi, vici
    Julius Caesar succinctly wrote "veni, vidi, vici" 'I came, I saw, I conquered' to tell the senate of Rome how quickly and easily he won a victory at Zela in 47 B.C.

  22. Truth speaking oracles (Cassandra)
    Cassandra is the most famous oracle who foretold truthfully about the future. Unfortunately for Troy, although she could see the future accurately, no one believed her.

  23. Vestals
    Roman priestesses of Rome's hearth goddess, Vesta, with special powers, rights, and responsibility, including mandatory virginity.

  24. Vesuvius
    Vesuvius is the name of the mountain that erupted in A.D. 79 on August 24. What came up from inside of it, fumes, ash, smoke, mud, stones, and flames, covered the surrounding area, and especially the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The volcano continues to erupt occasionally, fatally.

  25. Vulcan
    Vulcan was the smithy of the gods. His festival was August 23. His workshop was thought to be on the volcanic Mt. Aetna. The concept of the volcano came about in connection with Vesuvius. The Younger Pliny wrote letters describing the eruption.

    "Pity moved me [the Titan Prometheus], too, at the sight of the earth-born (gêgenês) dweller of the Kilikian (Cilician) caves curbed by violence, that destructive monster of a hundred heads (hekatonkaranos), impetuous (thouros) Typhon. He withstood all the gods, hissing out terror with horrid jaws, while from his eyes lightened a hideous glare, as though he would storm by force the sovereignty of Zeus. But the unsleeping bolt of Zeus came upon him, the swooping lightning brand with breath of flame, which struck him, frightened, from his loud-mouthed boasts; then, stricken to the very heart, he was burnt to ashes and his strength blasted from him by the lightning bolt. And now, a helpless and a sprawling bulk, he lies hard by the narrows of the sea, pressed down beneath the roots of Aitna (Mount Etna); while on the topmost summit Hephaistos sits and hammers the molten ore. There, one day, shall burst forth rivers of fire, with savage jaws devouring the level fields of Sikelia (Sicily), land of fair fruit--such boiling rage shall Typhon, although charred by the blazing lightning of Zeus, send spouting forth with hot jets of appalling, fire-breathing surge."
    From Theoi Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 353 ff (trans. Weir Smyth) (Greek tragedy 5th century B.C.)

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