The practical mechanics of crucifixion have had a lurid hold on the popular imagination for at least two millennia. The idea that St Peter was crucified upside down was no sooner taken as a sign of his self-proclaimed unworthiness to share the fate of Jesus, than it was reinterpreted as a mark of his common sense. Even a poor fisherman knew that hanging head down brought the oblivion of unconsciousness much more quickly than the usual upright, and excruciatingly painful, position.
One of the most memorable passages in Robert Harris’s new novel, Imperium, describes the famous crucifixion of the six thousand slave comrades of the rebel Spartacus, who had been rounded up by the Romans in 71 BC. Harris imagines the victorious Roman general, Crassus, carefully choreographing this horrific episode of mass slaughter. To ensure that a riot did not break out among the prisoners when they saw what fate lay in store for them, he had them marched along the Appian Way, and taken off in small groups at random intervals to be raised on their crosses, out of sight of the others. Crassus ‘seemed particularly proud of the logistics which had enabled him to crucify six thousand men along three hundred and fifty miles of road’.
My own first encounter with a working cross – an obviously well-used and discarded specimen – nonetheless came as a shock. One nail remained in the cross-bar and there were still traces of the meagre footrest on which the unfortunate victim would have perched (this wasn’t the upside-down variety). An unexpected addition was a vicious belt of torturing metal sticking out of the wood a little above waist height.
This was both a better and a worse encounter than you might be imagining. Better, because this particular instrument of execution was only a prop on a film set of ancient Rome, (re-)built near Hammamet in Tunisia. It had been left over, I would guess, from the recent filming of an Italian TV mini-series on the life of St Peter, starring Omar Sharif, somewhat incongruously, in the title role. Worse, because that nasty extra belt of metal – presumably the vestige of some device for fixing the actor invisibly to the cross – was a stark reminder that imitations of instruments of torture can appear even worse than the real thing. The mechanics of representation can sometimes rival what they try to represent – as was to become clear in this strange, cinematic Rome.
Many of the recent spate of Roman movies and television series have been made in Tunisia. Labour is cheap there. Extras are a bargain and in plentiful supply, even if they give the crowd scenes an ethnic identity which might sit uneasily next to any 19th-century Caucasian vision of the Roman populace. And the nearby ancient sites – for example, the ruins of the town of Dougga or the amphitheatre at El Djem – are better preserved and easier to use as locations than their equivalents in Rome itself. Life of Brian is probably the most famous Tunisian product, the medieval fortress, or ribat, at Monastir doing duty for much of biblical Jerusalem. My visit was a spin-off from a new autumn series of BBC ‘drama-docs’ – Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire – on which I had been an adviser and which had been partly filmed in Hammamet’s reconstructed Rome and elsewhere in Tunisia (including Dougga as a wonderfully convincing ruined and smoking city of Rome after the Neronian fire).
There is, of course, more to the popularity of North Africa among producers than low costs and convenient locations. The Tunisian government has pushed film-making as a money-spinner that is nicely symbiotic with its main industry, tourism. Tourists are attracted by the places in which their favourite movies were shot (not just Roman ‘re-con’ – some classic sequences of Star Wars were filmed here and have generated their own tourist trail round the desert locations). Film crews and actors usefully fill hotel beds during the off-season. It is not an entirely new initiative. As early as 1896, when the country was still under French control, the Lumière brothers shot footage in Tunis, and within a few years there were the beginnings of a local film industry (its first feature was the aptly titled The Girl from Carthage, in 1924).