Saturday, 14 April 2012

Top Five Parties for Grown Ups

Or orgies, obviously, but I figured I'd be a bit cautious with the title - after all, I also review children's literature on this blog.

At the CA conference this week, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, Jo Paul and Monica Cyrino delivered a fascinating panel on the history of orgies on screen. Lloyd pointed out that the tradition of the screen orgy started with Biblical films' portrayals of Babylon, but became part of popular culture's view of Rome through early films like The Sign of the Cross, focused on Nero's court. (None of the orgies popular culture is so fond of are really historical - there are some rumours about exciting goings-on during Bacchic rituals and some Greek vases depict scenes of group sex at drinking parties, but nothing to match the institutionalised orgy film and TV like to imagine existed in Rome. If there ever were that many orgies, they probably took place in Greece, that's where the pots come from).

These days the orgy is found most often, though not exclusively, in a Roman setting, and it's practically obligatory to include one in any film or TV series aimed at anyone over the age of fifteen (there are no orgies in The Roman Mysteries, I'm glad to say. Just a couple of people 'very kissing'). These five are some of the most interesting, extreme or plain funny.

5. Rome, 'Heroes of the Republic'
Context: While Octavian is busy taking over the world, his friend Maecenas and his sister Octavia are living it up at what is, perhaps surprisingly, Rome's only full-on Roman orgy.
Any historical basis to it? No, not really. Maecenas was pretty fond of poetry and probably of parties, but orgies is taking it a bit far.
No Sex Please, We're British! Romans usually speak The Queen's Latin, so the Roman orgy is in some ways an example of British characters engaging in all sorts of sexual naughtiness combined with excessive luxury, just without the need to pretend it didn't happen the next morning. In this particular case, however, although sex seems to be happening, it isn't really the main point of the scene. The focus is more on the orgy as a conduit for teenage rebellion, and rather than sleeping with the other guests, Octavia is indulging in drugs that seem to have a similar effect to LSD (the walls are melting). It's really more of a hippie vibe than the usual orgy - free love and sex is definitely happening, but the drugs and general air of letting go are more important for the development of Octavia's character.
Should I RSVP? It doesn't look that exciting a party, really. The best thing about this orgy, and the reason it makes the list, is the scene that follows, as Agrippa drags Octavia home and she has to admit 'I was at an orgy, Mother.'

4. True Blood, 'Shake and Fingerpop' and season 2 in general
Context: Maryann the several-thousand-year-old maenad exerts her influence over nearly everyone in the town of Bon Temps, causing them to put in black contact lenses and have lots of fully naked outdoors sex with each other.
Any historical basis to it? More than most, as there were various rumours about what maenads got up to and they had a bit of a reputation. The ancients probably exaggerated though, for the same reasons we do, and since the cult of Bacchus/Dionysus was a mystery cult, we'll never know for sure.
No Sex Please, We're British! These aren't British, they're American (though presumably Maryann was originally Greek). And they have lots and lots of sex. There's so much nudity you become immune to it pretty quickly and the whole thing has a rather nasty, cheap feel, made worse by the fact that, since they don't know what they're doing and haven't given consent, the whole town is essentially being raped together.
Should I RSVP? Depends on your preferences, really. If you'd like to have sex with several of your neighbours in someone's back garden, sure. Otherwise, no.

3. Chelmsford 123, 'Peeled Grapes and Pedicures'
Context: The Britons have heard about the feast of Saturnalia, and decide it's time to enjoy some of the benefits of being occupied by the Romans.
Any historical basis to it? The Saturnalia was an opportunity for drinking, feasting and giving the slaves a night off, but the Romans were no more likely to use it as an excuse for a sex party than modern Westerners are to decide to indulge in a key party for Christmas.
No Sex Please, We're British! Actually, lots of sex please, we're British! This episode exploits the other side of the British-Sex-Stereotypes coin, drawing on the tradition of drunken British louts and losers out to get some that comes from 1960s sex comedies, 1980s and 1990s laddish comedies and, well, the behaviour of quite a lot of British young people in Ibiza. This episode is as much about British tropes as Roman ones, which makes it quite a nice subversion of the tradition of the orgy, in a way. And a British sit-com set in ancient Rome could hardly avoid having an orgy at some point.
Should I RSVP? Not if you're a Roman, as Badvok will take advantage of the holiday to depose you and make himself King.

2. Spartacus Blood and Sand, 'The Red Serpent' onwards
Context: We meet Batiatus and Lucretia, in the middle of an orgy. The first of many.
Any historical basis to it? There's no evidence pointing to lanistas using their homes as party-houses/very cheap brothels in an attempt to get more sponsorship for their gladiators, no. On the other hand, there's not much evidence about lanistas' private lies at all, as the elite authors weren't all that interested in them, so who knows?
No Sex Please, We're British! There's lots of sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Interestingly, in the prequel series Gods of the Arena, we see a much more contained Lucretia and Batiatus, more likely to engage in a private threesome with only their slaves to watch, and Lucretia displays extreme reluctance when ordered to pimp out her slaves to rich callers as if she was a madam and they were prostitutes. The rape of her slaves is also depicted as thoroughly unpleasant. In this first season, though, the slaves are used all the time with little concern for their welfare and Lucretia and Batiatus seem quite happy for their home to resemble a brothel. This seems to be a combination of in-story character development (Lucretia and Batiatus are slowly increasingly corrupted in their desperate attempts to satisfy their ambitions) and external show-running (perhaps it occurred to the writers that they really ought to take the constant sexual abuse of the slave characters a bit more seriously).
Should I RSVP? Again, it depends on your tastes. If you're a slave, you're probably better off slaughtering Batiatus and his family and starting a rebellion.

1. I, Claudius, 'Hail Who?'
Context: Caligula, increasingly unbalanced, opens a brothel in the Imperial Palace. Attendance is mandatory.
Any historical basis to it? Suetonius says Caligula opened a brothel in the Palace to make money. But to be fair, Suetonius says a lot of things. He's a big old gossip.
No Sex Please, We're British! There's lots of sex (shown through kissing and the removal of clothes, because this is the 1970s, but you get the gist). Not everyone is happy about it though.
Should I RSVP? I wouldn't. This scene is top of the list because, while the others represent antiquity as a hotbed of sin and vice for the audience to enjoy vicariously, the orgy here is a traumatic event and a sign of the instability of the regime, coming at the beginning of the episode in which Caligula is assassinated. Where other films and shows revel in the mad emperor as an excuse to see some flesh and indulge in sexual fantasies, I, Claudius presents Caligula as a rather sad, though undeniably dangerous, figure. His orgy is half full of people who want to be there, but the other half are forced to be there, including a woman, rescued by Claudius, who's only just given birth, which is pretty disturbing (and this was pre-Spartacus: Blood and Sand, of course). The atonal music in the background, the content that, for the 1970s, was fairly shocking and Caligula's absolutely unhinged threats to Claudius and others make this a party you do not want to attend.

(Dis)Honourable mention: I haven't seen Caligula. I'm sure the orgies in that film are... quite something.

More Top Five lists


  1. Cheers Juliette - I was wondering what you meant by "parties for grown ups" !!

    A great selection, though I would cite perhaps one notable omission - the film Caligula(1979) - which itself is excuse to have an entire movie about parties for grown ups.

    Also a curious side note is the film that was released as Caligula II - Messalina, Messalina, whose only link to the aforementioned Caligula film is that it apparently re-used the same sets... I have seen the former but not the latter, which is meant to be quite comical, though I'm not sure if that is intentionally so!

    Kind Regards

  2. Caligula was the honourable mention because I haven't seen it! I will at some point though I'm sure - though I don't know which version I'll go for...

  3. Interesting list! Rendered all the more interesting to me by the fact that I'm in full "recuperation" mode from an all-nighter out dancing in the crazy fiestas from the next town over! :p

  4. Nothing like a good orgy to make you feel like death the next day ;)

    1. Very true! Add to that a bashing of the knee... and I'm all set! Am making "feel better brownies" to see if they help any... :p

  5. Having actually seen Caligula, all I can say is ... well, I guess I don't have a lot to say! The sex wasn't all that great, there are some nasty bits with prisoners being punished by having their genitals chopped off, there's fair blood for 1979, and it's an astonishing waste of Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud (!!!), Peter O'Toole (!!!), and Helen Mirren (ferchrissake!). Gore Vidal's name is on the screenplay, but I have trouble believing that he's really very responsible for it.

    That said, it would be fun to read your review. Just make sure you have something to drink first.

    And, really, I, Claudius was just amazing stuff, wasn't it? And you left out Messelina's contest with the prostitute (not exactly an orgy, but certainly a gang-bang, and a lot more interesting than anything in Caligula), and, of course, her wedding party/orgy before she meets her inevitable fate.

  6. I know, there were too many great examples in I, Claudius - Julia's party early on was a contender as well.

    Will bear that in mind about Caligula - a friend of mine has the DVD, might see if she's up for a viewing!

  7. I saw Caligula many years ago, so my memory is a little vague. I do remember the Tiberius figure (O'Toole), being particularly well played from the darker, depraved side of his character. I, Claudius though to me remains the benchmark.

  8. I saw Caligula some years back. If I were Catholic, I'd be inclined to go to confession.

  9. It's so ingrained in pop culture, that I never really thought about the orgy not really being very Roman. Even the word is Greek! And all it means is "secret rites". But then, even Greek orgies weren't all that. The typical symposia started out small and stayed that way unless some drunks from down the road dropped by. Even then things never really got close to what we think of as an orgy. Just flute girls earning a little extra or maybe a hetaira dishing out favors. (A woman who can recite Homer! Kinky!) Maenads mostly had a reputation for tearing apart small animals with their bare hands and teeth. (Fun fact: maenads worked themselves into a frenzy by headbanging.) Given the Greek attitude towards sexuality in female citizens, I would think wild sex would be frowned upon, even in Bacchic or Dionysian rites. OTOH, I just learned yesterday that archaeologists think they found a sacred brothel at Merenda when they were building the equestrian center for the Olympics.

  10. @DmX Where does the headbanging thing come from?

    And no, I don't think maenads were having mad sex orgies either, though the ancients may have liked to fantasise about that as much as we do. How far a symposium went would depend on the host, just like a modern party - if Silvio Berlusconi was in charge, you might be onto something.

    Arcaheologists always think they've found a brothel when there's a journalist around.

    @William, I'll bear that in mind! Not sure my priest wants to hear that confession though...

  11. I wish I could remember where I read that about the headbanging. Probably the New Pauly. I was responsible for writing a quiz on maenads several years ago at AncientWorlds and it was something I picked up on. Generally IIRC, it's usually described how they rocked their heads and upper bodies back and forth rhythmically, which is pretty much a description of headbanging. I think there was a study about the effects of headbanging around the same time that implied a slight trancelike effect. Many Orthodox Jews also do a rhythmic rocking of the upper body when praying, though obviously not so violently as metalheads or maenads.

    You're right about brothels and journalists; that's part of the academic news lifecycle, where the scientist writes "slight correlation", the university PR department leaves out slight, and by the time it hits the newsstands it's an established fact in 36 point bold font. But I found this in an academic book. This time I actually have the reference: Glazebrook and Henry, Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE – 200 CE. OK, the interpretation obviously fits their thesis, but the explanation for it sounded plausible.

  12. @Juliette/NomadUK - the oft-repeated story about Caligula's production was that an early cut of the film was seen by producer Bob Guccione(from Penthouse) who didn't think it 'sexy' enough. Hence some extended orgy scenes were filmed and cut into the film to make it the mess we see today.



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