What does it mean to be Roman?

The story begins at the far reaches of the empire. The wind howls across a desolate landscape whose only distinctive landmarks are standing stones. A group enters the low opening of a neolithic barrow. Inside they discover a woman frozen in ice. She resembles an archaic Greek Kore statue ‘Well comrades’, says one of them, ‘is she not worthy of Helen, or Venus herself’.

Thus begins one of the greatest graphic novels ever set in the ancient world.

The dialogue from this scene originally comes from the pen of a Roman nearly two thousand years ago, but this is no dust filled book.

Peplum by Blutch (Christian Hincker) is broadly based on the Latin novel Satyricon. Often credited to the historical figure Petronius, the Satyricon is sometimes believed to be a satire of Nero’s Rome.

The Satyricon survives in fragments, which combined with its episodic structure, lends the book an allusive, almost modernist style. 

It tells the tale of a trio of likely lads as they traverse the Roman World. We don’t quite know how it starts or ends, or necessarily how the surviving sections link together. The stories reveal something of the lived experience of antiquity, albeit one glanced through an ironic lens. 

In contrast Peplum is structured in 11 chapters of different sizes, each with a specific narrative sometimes directly or indirectly inspired by the Satyricon. The central characters are different, but they both share many supporting characters. 

For all that, you cannot really understand the novel by looking for earlier inspirations. Blutch is too allusive, too intelligent an artist for this. Peplum is not a graphic novel adaptation of the Satyricon.

Peplum is set in an earlier period of Roman history. An early scene depicts the assasination of Julius Caesar with the words of Shakespeare. “How many ages hence…” indeed. 

For a French speaking audience, this might confirm the promise of book’s title. In French, Sword and Sandal films are often called Peplum (from the Italian term). The assasintation of Caesar and the high politics of the Roman state were popular themes in these types of film. 

Peplum investigates much more deeply the themes of power, coercion, violence and control which were at the core of what ‘Roman’ meant; but it is interested in the fringes of this world, both hierarchically and geographically. 

The visceral impact of the book comes from its artwork. Drawn starkly in black ink, Blutch renders an almost tactile and physical world. There are a few ecovative images of cities and treasure rooms, warships and armies but the focus is on characters not their environments. The Roman world is created by their behaviour.

It would be unfair to reduce the book to one theme, but an important topic is definitely the idea of female divinity. This is a book devoid of supernatural elements, yet the connective plank across the pages of the book is the so-called goddess which is discovered at the start. She drives men mad and yet in this hyper-masculine Roman world, she has no agency beyond this. She literally cannot move. She is the unmoved mover.

How different this is to the reality of the Roman world in which goddesses like Isis or Astarte were important figures. Yet in its ambiguity it is closer to both the work of Petronius and our own world.

Peplum is published in English by NYRB (New York Review Books).

All images used under Fair Use as part of a review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics