Sex in historical media: are we doing it right?

borgias Jeremy Irons

If you’ve tried to watch a historical TV show recently, at some point you probably enjoyed a good bit of on-screen screwing. Perhaps more than any other genre, history media contains a hell of a lot of fucking (though all bets are off in the gaming world).


Well, the flippant answer is that sex and death are right up there in terms of excitement. One of the main reasons we consume media is to be excited, so any studio looking to reap the most rewards would do well to throw some sex in there. In fact, it would be safe to assume that media like The Other Boleyn Girl and The Borgias specifically sets out to target this market. And if you’re HBO, you take any opportunity to throw some sex in to spice up a boring scene.

Other Boleyn GirlBut the choice of stories should also tell you something as well. Because this is history we’re talking about. Just like death, sex did happen. Like, a lot. It is only fitting that it should crop up in the history books now and then.In fact I’m going to go out on a limb and say there has probably been more in the way of historically-noteworthy shagging in our past than there has historically-noteworthy killing. And just look at how much media there is about that!

And sure, it’s probably more exciting in a scandalous situation because the stakes are upped. But just regular husband-and-wife stuff is all good, too.

However, there is a risk that we end up focusing on the weird stuff entirely, to the extent of distorting historical accuracy completely. For example, HBO’s Rome spent a hefty amount of time focussing on affairs, incest, homosexuality and prostitution, and while the trend may have been real, the extent, or particular incidents depicted, were not.

HBO Rome Lesbianism

The media industry has a serious problem with the glamourisation of sex. They portray sex as a beautiful art, where anything can be erotic, so long as it is lit appropriately. The grunting, sweating and giggling are rarely depicted. On top of this, the fetishisation of exotic sexual situations means that the most scandalous historical gossip is represented as truth for the audience. When there isn’t enough of that to go round, the media will fabricate their own history to fit the bill. And that’s not really the point of history, now is it?

Why historical media is the best genre at portraying death

Caesar's Assisnation HBO ROME

Pirates of the Caribbean suffered, right from the very start, from the fact that none of its characters would stay dead. One of the most successful franchises of recent years is the Avengers series. But if it has a flaw, it is that death isn’t taken seriously. Yes, one guy died in the most recent installment, but given the sheer amount of world-ending jeopardy invoked in both major films and the individual installments, the actual threat is fairly minmal. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was pretty similar. Only three significant characters died in the whole trilogy; Boromir in Fellowship, and the two kings in Return. Considering all that vague ‘one ring to rule them all’ threat, the good guys get off waaaay too lightly.

But if we’re talking about Sean Bean, one series that bucks the trend, is Game of Thrones. Major characters die ALL THE TIME in that series. In fact they do it so often that new major characters have to be introduced to keep the action going. Game of Thrones is an anomaly; most TV series will only offer one or two token deaths every so often. So much is invested in characters that their creators are reluctant to off them. GRRM has no such qualms.Ned's execution Game of Thrones

On the other hand, historical media has to confront death all the time. People, factually, are mortal. All of the historical people who have ever existed, have all died. What’s more, historical characters tend to die at the most inappropriate times – Richard III springs to mind. As a result, death is one of the major plot features that history, as a genre, focusses on. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example; that film is all about Death Vs Life. Yes, it’s ostensibly about war. But in reality, death is a lot more familiar to us. The central characters almost all die, just so that Ryan can live. And they do not go gentle into that good night. They go out kicking and screaming, in a pool of their own blood, desperate to finish their business.

Saving Private Ryan

TV is rapidly catching up. HBO’s ROME featured a large number of deaths. The two heroes Pullo and Vorenus carved their way through a hugh number of fighters without so much as a backward glance, but there were also a large number of deaths that the show spent a lot more time on.  For the sake of variety I have included a still from the death of Julia; Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Her death was the catalyst for the split between the two men, and it is an emotional affair. HBO’s focus on death in all it’s complexity is a major part of what saved this series from being just a blood-n-sex-fest.Julia's death HBO ROME

Video games, by comparison, have a long way to go. Enemies are dead as soon as their last health point is hacked away. They fall to the floor, and (sometimes after a few seconds) fade into invisibility – leaving you just enough time to loot their body. This totally avoids dealing with things like the twitching, gurgling enemies on the floor, who grab at your heels as you march over them, or just how tricky it is to strip armour from a corpse.

The historical genre leads the way when it comes to portraying death. It is emotional, paradigm-shifting, and very, very final. And that is how it is portrayed.

5 Actors Who Can’t Keep Away From History

While everyone else is banging on about gerbils this week, I thought it would be nice to blog about the Oscars. I’ve been particularly thinking about the way that certain actors crop up in historical (and fantasy) films and TV shows over and over. It’s like they can’t get enough of the swish outfits. Here is my pick of the bunch:

Keira Knightley

At some point, fairly early on in her career, Knightley threw on a massive frock, thought ‘My god, I look fabulous’, and never looked back. Her roles to date include Pirates of the Caribbean, King Arthur, Atonement, The Duchess, Silk, Pride and Prejudice, and The Imitation Game.


James Purefoy

You’ll probably remember him as the Black Prince in A Knight’s Tale, or as Marc Antony in HBO’s ‘Rome’, but he also just loves to appear in dodgy straight-to-DVD movies, including Ironclad, and George and The Dragon. Other appearances include Sharpe, Vanity Fair, Solomon Kane, and basically anything where he can wear a huge collar.

James Purefoy Vanity Fair

Russell Crowe

A man who is at his most comfortable when he’s wearing at least one layer of leather, Crowe’s resume includes starring roles in Gladiator, Master and Commander, 3:10 to Yuma, Robin Hood, Les Miserables, and last (and probably, let’s be honest, least) Noah. This is a man who’s not happy if he’s not rewriting history.

Russell Crowe Robin HoodCate Blanchett

If there’s one thing that needs to be stated for the record, Blanchett *owns* Queen Elizabeth. When she’s not busy portraying the body of a weak and feeble woman and the heart of a king, she spends most of her time chilling with Gandalf and the rest of the White Council. Her projects include Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the aforementioned Robin Hood, and the new Jungle Book movie.

Elizabeth Cate Blanchett

Johnathan Pryce

Possibly thanks to the fact that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the incumbent Pope, Pryce spent the summer of 2014 playing religious leaders in major TV series. In Wolf Hall he was Cardinal Wolsey, while in the upcoming fifth season of Game of Thrones, he will portray the High Sparrow. He has also appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean, Cranford, The Brothers Grimm, and the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.


The ‘Romans going beyond the wall’ trope

King Arthur, Rome, and Hadrian's Wall

In the past decade or so Hadrian’s Wall has cropped up a bunch of times in popular culture.

Hell, these films all had the same basic plot:

  • King Arthur
  • The Eagle
  • Centurion

To whit; Roman dude and his buddies go ‘beyond the wall’, do things, several of the gang die, the hero returns home worse off for the experience. If you watch Game of Thrones, Jon Snow’s storyline follows the same plot. The 2008 film Doomsday is a near-future spin on the trope.

This trailer only shows a glimpse of the wall, around the 1:10 mark.

The line ‘Open the gate, soldier’ betrays the fact that those soldiers didn’t want to open the gate. This, in turn, reflects a presumption that has gained and lost popularity over the years; that The Wall was the last bastion of civilisation before venturing into the unknown. After all, only a truly civilised culture could build such an impressive edifice, right?

If that’s the case, why do the heroes hate seeing the wall on their return? To them it, and by extension Rome, is either a symbol of betrayed trust or messed-up priorities.

When I first studied The Wall, my best parallel I came across was with the American border with Mexico. Both are designed to be crossed. The border has passport control areas, and the wall has gates every mile. There may be a power (and prosperity) difference across the wall, but it’s not as black-and-white as ‘civilised one side, barbarian on the other’.

King Arthur, Rome, and Hadrian's Wall

In each story, there is a great deal of ‘going native’: The titular Centurion goes off to shack up with a girl living north of The Wall. The hero of The Eagle turns down Roman glory, frees his slave, and decides to go into farming (actually a pretty Roman notion). And King Arthur? He marries a Briton, and becomes King. For reasons.

The real problem with each of these stories is that they are trying to capture a romantic, emotional snapshot. The reality of life in the Roman Legion, and on Hadrian’s Wall, was an entirely pragmatic one. The Wall was there to control the movement of cattle, not people. The Legions were there to maintain a balance of power.

If you want to read more on the subject, Almost Archaeology does a pretty decent analysis of the whole trope. For my own two pence, I’d like to remind the world that Hadrian’s Wall was less than 10% of a border system that stretched across Europe and Africa. I’m getting bored of misty glens and drenched, desperate Romans. Let’s get them hot and dusty instead!

Four fantasies that owe something to history

A few weeks ago I gave a nod to the History Behind Game of Thrones blog in my article about counterfactual histories. In that article I reiterated a point made by the blog itself, which is that it is possible to see the whole series as George RR Martin’s experimental tinkering with history. If history’s rumours really happened, how would that’ve played out?

And this is a theme that definitely bears thinking about. Because, while fantasy might be utterly absurd and largely drawn from imaginations, it is also grounded in the real history of our own world. So here we go:

#1: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is all the weirdness of our anthropological past

Like many other great fantasy authors, Pratchett is a student of history. In The Science of Discworld, it is explained that the Discworld works in a similar way to our own except that, instead of the fundamental laws of science, the Discworld has fundamental laws of magic. Therefore, if people once believed something existed in our world, it probably does exist in the Discworld, and is minding its own business thankyou very much.

#2 Tolkien’s Middle Earth is all the complexity of our linguistic past

JRR Tolkien was fascinated by language and linguistics, and spoke (and, more importantly as far we’re concerned, wrote in) a number of different languages, to varying levels of fluency. Languages were his bag. One of his many Elvish languages was based on Latin, by way of Finnish, Welsh, English, and Greek. And that’s not even abnormal. It’s just par for the course, baby!

The Elvish inscription from JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings

#3 The Warhammer world is all the madness of our aggressive past

As a younger man, I was a massive fan of Warhammer. There is a vast mythology to the games which goes beyond any other series I’ve come across. The ultimate focus of it is on the aggressive jostling of different races of creatures and peoples. Warhammer is about fighting, and each race has its own style. The Empire, for example, is based on C14th German Landknecht culture. The colourful Lizardmen, by contrast, inhabit a continent that looks suspiciously like South America, and behave a lot like Mesoamerican civilisations.

Warhammer world looks like historical maps of Earth

#4 Robert E Howard’s Conan is all the brutality of our lawless past

While the other series on this list capture the broader sweep of history, Conan is all about one guy. Moreover, it is about the struggles between the powerful and the powerless. Conan, despite his heroic stature, is a powerless man. He is forever having people he cares about torn away from him. There is no higher power for him to appeal to. In many ways, he embodies ‘barbaric’ tribal prehistory, where an individual could either trust to primal gods, or take fate into their own hands. Conan doesn’t love battle, it is his last resort.

Conan the Reluctant Hero

There  are other fantasy series, but these are the cream of the crop, and all of them owe something to real world history.

If you haven’t noticed, counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

Dracula Untold

While it’s not required reading, I have previously covered some elements of this topic in my article about how knowing history can undermine the plot lines of historical stories. It might be worth reading that article before you read this one.

Dracula Untold is out in cinemas this weekend. As I have already mentioned, the film looks like it will sit somewhere between genuine history and straight-up fantasy. This makes it a prime example of a ‘counterfactual history’; a ‘what if…’ scenario where we tweak one or two facts and see what happens. ‘Dracula Untold’ asks ‘What if vampires actually existed at the time of Vlad Țepeș?’ and then draws the logical (but also bat-shit crazy) conclusion.


This new release is just the latest in a wealth of counterfactual films, games and TV shows that have come out in recent years. Now, media producers tend to tweak facts in almost every single historical story. For example, that classic Braveheart is riddled with historical inconsistencies, from the tartan kilts to the people who were present at the battles. This is done for convenience, rather than to twist the course of events, so these examples don’t really constitute counterfactual histories.

One of the early big hitters in this list is 2004’s ‘King Arthur’, which took the titular myth and twisted it to fit a Roman/Saxon theme. Arthur himself became a Roman; Guinevere was now a Briton, and Lancelot and the other knights were Sarmatian auxiliaries. The story itself was within the realms of possibility, and was definitely grounded by the manly camaraderie between the knights. The love triangle is played down, and the whole thing works pretty well. The only slightly unbelievable area is when the audience is supposed to believe that there is a peaceful transition to a Romano-British kingdom under Arthur.

It’s not as if they had Boudicca riding an elephant into the Forum Romanum.

‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is a major counterfactual leap away from reality. In the game, Nero has two sons; ‘Basilius’ and ‘Commodus’, who incite a rebellion in Britain that sweeps all the way back to the streets of Rome. The player goes on to kill those two sons, and also Boudicca, and finally Nero. None of these things actually happened. In combat games, there is a need for boss battles. But over a limited period of time, it is hard to introduce new characters and give them a detailed back story. Ryse cuts corners here by using historical figures out of context; ultimately, the story suffers for it.

But let’s move away from Romans. Another game series that relies heavily on counterfactual history is Assassin’s Creed. The premise of that series is that Earth was previously inhabited by a race of aliens who left artefacts of immense power, which two rival secret societies are fighting over. The series then posits that several significant historical events have been used as a cover for these conflicts. As far as counterfactual histories go, this one is pretty high maintenance.

But what if we go further than that? The eminent History Behind Game of Thrones blog argues that the entire premise of Game of Thrones might be based on counterfactual questions. For example, several female leaders, from Anne Boleyn to Lucrezia Borgia, have been accused of incest. What if those rumours were actually true? What if Richard III really didn’t murder the princes in the tower? Would the Middle Ages have been a less bloody time period if chivalry hadn’t existed? Sure, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, and as the seasons progress, I suspect the dragons and white walkers will have a bigger part to play, but without those historical questions it would be a lot shorter.

Ultimately, counterfactual histories are a way to have some fun with history, to engage with it, and ask *why* things happened the way they did. If you change one detail, what subsequent events also would have been altered?

Male Fantasies, Historical Fiction, and Game of Thrones Geekery

A really interesting blog, and as a student of ancient history, it is interesting to see how many of these concepts can be pushed even further back.

Jeanne de Montbaston

This is how I imagine John Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.  The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From This is how I imagine Jon Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.
The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From this site.

This is an unashamedly geeky post, which I writing because it’s hot, and I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, and because I enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones, misogyny and medieval romance last time. I’ve had a question from Rachel Moss (tweeting over on @WetheHumanities today) going round and round in my head today. She was talking about the popularity of the medieval era for fiction writers, and asked ‘What is it about the Middle Ages than encourages people to use it for fantasy?’

As I was thinking about this question, I came across this piece, titled ‘Why “Game of Thrones” Isn’t Medieval, and Why That Matters’. Now, normally, that title would make my heart sing, because I am fed up with the…

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