Cicero and Marcus Aurelius in Camelot

I’ve recently posted on the Starz TV series Camelot.  One thing I mentioned then was that Ciceronian ideas of republicanism must be be present in someone familiar with Latin, certainly as know to the upper classes from the time of the Roman Empire well into modernity.  Therefore we might see them in the story of Arthur who is presented as having learned Latin and as being concerned with just government for all.  The application of Cicronian republicanism to Arthur who appears to rule without representative institutions may seem stretched, but Cicero himself refers to the positive role of Roman kings before the last one (Tarquin the Proud), referring with particular favour to Numa.

I’ve just seen the third episode and Arthur quotes Cicero, with regard to the special role of the search of truth for a man.  This comes from On Duties I.4, the context of which is to distinguish humans from animals, which gives it a different emphasis from that in Arthur’s words, which suggest the need for an individual to search for truth.  It has to be said that this line turns up on websites of famous quotes, so I am not sure that the writers of Camelot used the line as the result of  knowledge of Cicero.  I would be happy to find that is the case though.

In episode 3, there is also reference to Marcus Aurelius.  The Kings’s champion Leontes (the character usually known as Lancelot in Arthur stories) and Arthur’s brother, the steward of the kingdom, Kay, look for Gawain.  Leontes recommends him as a promising knight, though he had previously refused to fight for Arthur’s father Uther.  They find Gawain in a ruined church, itself indicative of the general sense of desolation in the land, and find him scornful of Uther who he does not realise is dead, and then Arthur’s claim to greatness on the grounds of pulling the Sword of Mars from the stone on the waterfall.  Leontes and Kay stay overnight in the church anyway, and Kay finds that Gawain is reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in Latin. I’ve no idea if anyone translated Marcus Aurelius into any of the celtic languages being used in England in Roman and post-Roman times.

The ethnicity and language of Arthur and his associates is left unspoken, but the assumption is presumably that they are English Celts (sometimes known as Britons) of the Early Middle Ages, who retain Latin as the basis of high culture.  One of the characters introduced in this episode is Vivienne (who has precedents in previous Arthur stories), who becomes a servant of Morgan (Arthur’s resentful black magic wielding sister).  The actor is black and the character refers to herself as descended from slaves brought over by the Romans, and has markings which come from the culture of her ancestors.  So presumably descended from north African slaves and of course black Africans must travelled all over the Roman world as slaves, soldiers, merchants, administrators and so on.  Roman slavery was not based on race, and the use of black character here is presumably in part, to create a link with American history.

Back to Gawain, who we find is teaching himself Latin and has only read a few pages of Aurelius, the Roman Emperor whose Meditations are influenced by Stocism, and were written while campaigning against barbarians on Rome’s frontiers, so a good choice for a knight to read.  Cicero was Stoic influenced as well, so accidentally or not, a consistent pattern of classical references in the series.  Kay reads out a line, translating for Gawain’s benefit, referring to what Aurelius learned from his father.  Kay realises that Gawain is even better suited to be a knight in the new (Ciceronian) state of affairs than Leontes had suggested.  Gawain is not immediately convinced but follows them when they leave, and is completely persuaded when kay promises to teach him Latin.

The first time we see Arthur in episode one he is in a state of intimacy with a girl in the fields, and is interrupted by Kay.  It turns out that Arthur is skipping his Latin lesson, Kay has come to introduce him to Merlin who has arrived to inform Arthur that he is the son of the dead king and will be the new king (Arthur is shown to be brought up by Kay’s parents unaware of his real parents).   So it is Arthur not studying Cicero, or certainly not studying the linguistic context for reading Cicero, who is exploring his sexuality, evidently not for the first time and not with his first partner, who learns that he will be king.  This becomes more significant in episode three, because it is when he is talking with Guinevere that Arthur quotes Cicero, a quotation that she recognises.  Guinevere is shown to be blonde, like the short term girlfriend Arthur is with when we first see him.  Guinevere makes a link between desire and the study of Cicero.  The usual Arthurian story of his great knight Lancelot falling in love with the king’s wife Guinevere is turned round, so that it is Arthur who has found himself in love with the fiance of his greatest knight, just before the marriage.  Just as Guinevere connects desire with Cicero, she turns Arthur’s attraction to blondes from a short term opportunistic encounter to painful romantic love.  That movement might be seen as linked with the death of the woman Arthur has known as his mother, and his encounter with his biological mother Ygraine.  Arthur moves from relating to women immediately physically present to relating to women, who are in someway not there, not known to him.  He does seduce Guinevere the night before her wedding, but is told by her that this can be the only such encounter, and he evidently feels the weight of duty to his friend Leontes, and to the state.

Political duty and justice, as described by Cicero, are linked with Guinevere, but she, or Arthur’s desire for her, threatens that world.  Merlin who is guiding Arthur, does not quote Cicero, but we might feel possesses a deeply Ciceronian combination of political idealism with brutal realism.  The latter is particularly associated with Cicero because of his role in persuading the senate to execute the conspiratorial senator, Catiline, without a trial.  It is Merlin who wishes the wedding to take place at Camelot as important symbolism for the new kingdom, and who perceives that Arthur’s desire threatens the better order he is trying to construct, with Arthur as his rather naive and raw agent, who does not always appreciate the role Merlin has assigned to him.

It remains to be seen how far these references to Cicero and Marcus Aurelius will be followed up later in the series, but it is certainly very welcome to see them appear, particularly as I had the feeling from the first two episodes that Cicero was just over the horizon.  How far Latin educated war lords of post-Roman England read Cicero, or cared about him, I do not know.  Certainly descendants of the Romanised aristocracy in Gaul continued to regard themselves as such for  maybe two centuries after the fall of the Empire in the West.  Whatever the plausibilities or implausibilities, it is very welcome news that a popular TV series makes such references.

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