I came, I saw, I threw up–slapstick history in Julius Zebra

‘I’d forgotten what an impetuous little donkey you are’–The Emperor Hadrian, Julius Zebra: Entangled with the Egyptians.

As part of my mission to think about history and comedy, I’ve been reading Gary Northfield’s very funny Julius Zebra series of middle-grade chapter books  In the first of them, Rumble with the Romans, Julius, a zebra from the ‘stinky lake’ in the middle of Africa, is captured and taken to Rome to visit the circus.  Actually, that’s what he thinks at first.  In fact, he’s taken to be in the circus, to fight for his life in front of the Emperor Hadrian.  At first it doesn’t go so well for Julius and his friends, but when a gladiator calls him a ‘stripy horse,’ Julius sees red and finds his fighting instincts, becoming the crowd’s, and the Emperor’s favourite.

It’s a kind of Spartacus-meets-Gladiator –meets Asterix-meets-Beano-and-Dandy romp, mixing madcap mayhem with quite a bit of historical information along the way, and it’s one of the funniest books I’ve read about Ancient Rome in a a long time.

Bundle with the Britons is the second in the Julius Zebra series, in which Julius and his friends are sent to Britain to subdue the Britons by taking on their fearsome gladiators.  But when they go on a training run through a swamp, they meet an old woman in a hut, who tells them about the great Iceni warrior, Boudicca, and shows them how to paint themselves with woad, they join forces with their British counterparts, to overthrow the Romans.  Next up is Entangled with the Egyptians, where Julius, fleeing from Hadrian, ends up in Egypt, where he is mistaken for a horse god who can make it rain.  And the last, so far, in the series, is Grapple with the Greeks, in which the great hero Heracles drags Julius and his friends to Greece to help him find his lost Golden Apple.

Northfield creates a merry band of companions for his hero.  There’s Cornelius, the know-it all warthog.  He functions much like Brenda the Wonder-Camel in the Cairo Jim books, providing information when necessary.  (Even if Julius mishears half of it, and misunderstands the rest, the information is very helpful for readers.)  There’s Lucia, the crocodile, whose cunning escape plans seem always to lead the gang back to their captors.  Rufus, the amiable giraffe, always up for adventure, Felix, the rock-collecting antelope, and Milus, a grumpy lion.  Sometimes the gang is joined by their gladiatorial-combat instructor, Pliny the mouse.  And once Julius is reunited with his dimwitted brother, Brutus, even more mayhem ensues.

Together, Julius and friends travel the Roman empire, from Africa to Rome, to Britain, to Egypt and Greece, matching wits with Septimus, a bad-tempered teacher of gladiators, and the emperor himself.

The novels are an enticing mixture of text and cartoons, with a lot of shouting, slapstick and bad puns.  Chapters have titles like ‘I came, I saw, I threw up,’ (Romans) and ‘I want my Mummy’ (in Egyptians), and ‘Hoo noo broon coo’ (Britons), and the humour doesn’t err on the side of subtlety.  But again, along the way, is a great deal of information, delivered in part by Cornelius the warthog, and visible in the details of Northfield’s text and illustrations.  He’s clearly done his research, and for readers eager to know more about Ancient Rome, each volume has a final chapter in which Cornelius teaches how to count in Roman Numerals, and a glossary in which Northfield explains the fundamentals of daily life in antiquity.

These books don’t only give you a good laugh, they teach you something, namely details about a long-ago world. They make me want to know more–to check up on things I’d forgotten, and to think about things I hadn’t heard about before.  And they gave me something to think about: they may not be intended as post-colonial critiques of empire, but there’s certainly a resonance in seeing a group of African animals, kidnapped to entertain the humans of Rome, break free and start a rebellion, in Rome and Britain.  Hadrian’s obsession with his big Wall in Britain offers another sort of modern resonance.  Looking at how the animals band together to outwit the humans, whose intentions are seldom good, I can’t help thinking about how our human world exploits animals.  There are other resonances: animals, like children, are often bossed around by adults, and children identify with animals’ innocence and comparative kindness.  Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it’s nothing to what humans get up to.

Funny books don’t have to be educational, but they often are, perhaps despite themselves.  Through humour, action, fun characters, and amusing situations, Julius Zebra and friends convey a great deal of nonsense, but they also teach us a great deal about the the world–ancient or modern.

–Elizabeth Hale




Report from the field: our colleagues from Cameroon

Our colleague from Cameroon, Prof. Daniel Nkemleke, is leading the African wing of the Our Mythical Childhood project.  His team is carrying out pioneering work in gathering data on Cameroonian myths, and children’s literature.  As we enter the second year of the project, he writes a report from the field.


Training Seminar for Writers of Survey Entries[1]


Ecole Normal Supérieure, University of Yaoundé 1, Cameroon

October 28, 2017: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.


Screenshot 2017-11-07 17.51.05
From left to right … the Cameroonian team! Eleanor Dasi, Daniel Nkemleke, Stanley Itoe, Divine Neba, Didymus Tsangue, Patrick Enama. (One other scholar, Julius M. Angwah, left before the photo was taken)
  1. Introduction

Members of the Cameroon/Africa research team for the project “Our Mythical Childhood (OMC)…The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges” held an intensive one-day training seminar at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of the University of Yaoundé 1 on October 28, 2017, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The goal of the seminar was to familiarize the new team of writers of survey entries with the project’s requirements and how they should approach the task of writing entries for the database in line with OMC ethical guidelines. The discussion opened with an overview of the project by Daniel Nkemleke, who emphasized the international scope of the project and highlighted its objectives. He briefed the participants on work that has been done in the past one year, and expressed the hope that the experiences of last year help improve activities for this year. He moved on to talk about the benefit of introducing other colleagues with whom we work in our different institutions, to the project as a strategy to identify potential collaborators.

  1. Activities

2.1. What is a survey entry?

Templates for writing survey entries (myth, literary, video film) were studied. Copyright questions and related issues were clarified. The group then moved on to read some of the best entries written by colleagues from other institutions, comparing style and taking note of text specificities. Considering the fact that many of the participants have not written survey entries of the type envisaged in this project before, it was decided that after their first 2-3 entries would have been written, another brief meeting will be held to discuss overall performance and harmonize style to the extent possible.

2.2. Ethical guidelines for writing survey entries

The ethical guidelines for writing entries were studied and questions of participants addressed. The most important aspect here was the focus on originality. Participants were instructed that each entry written must represent the work of the writer, and any foreign material will have to be duly acknowledged, as in all standard research and publication. All the participants pledged their commitment to uphold the integrity of what they will contribute and to live up to the expectations as indicated in the guidelines. The participants were informed that there will be an internal peer-review process and an external second reviewer. A successful entry would therefore be one that must have gone through these processes.

2.3. Distinguishing myths, legends and folktales

Divine Che Neba, an expert in African literature and orality, gave a talk on the differences between a myth, a legend and a folktale. These distinctions will help each writer to discriminate what is a myth and what is not. We maintained that myth is an important category as far as Cameroon/Africa is concerned and priority for this second year of the project is on the identification and the collection of myths from different parts of the country.

2.4. Participant consent form

Consent participant forms were multiplied and distributed to participants as an accompanying indispensable document for any field trip to collect myths. Given the low literacy level of some people in rural areas where some of these myths will be collected, participants were asked to approach the matter of obtaining narrators’ signature with tact and wisdom. Since in some cases asking for a formal signature may create an unnecessary fear on the part of the narrator, the latest directive (from ERC) on the matter, namely that a verbal recorded consent may be enough, was discussed. But it was also made clear that such a recording should not be done surreptitiously.

Mami Wata, a water goddess, appears in many Cameroonian myths.  (Seri Mask honoring Mami Wata, Cote d’Ivoire (Guro people) By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)
  1. New questions

As the participants reviewed the range of areas for survey entries (myth, literature, songs, music etc.), questions were asked about what Cameroon/Africa can offer more and in a unique manner, to the survey database, apart from the exiting text categories. We contemplated the possibility of writing about secret societies that is common practice in Cameroon, for example. Secret societies and secret cults abound in Cameroon, and elsewhere in Africa (e.g. the Mami-Wata cult, the Jengu cult). Most villages in Cameroon have secret cults. Some are well-established institutions in the court of the powerful and influential traditional Chiefs and some are more or less urban phenomena. There are some radio programmes in Cameroon that discuss this phenomenon. Can we include Mystical Cults as an entry category?

Further, Cameroonian culture is very rich in traditional songs which are performed during special annual events, enthronements of traditional chiefs, marriages, births and deaths. Can the music category be extended to include these?

  1. Conclusion

The seminar discussions were as interesting as they were exciting. The participants were eager to explore possibilities to start writing their first survey entries. Some pledged to use their workplace colleagues to identify potential rural communities where myths may be collected. This exercise may even begin from the people in urban areas, since almost every urban dweller in Cameroon comes from a village. some pledged to undertake field trips with Divine Neba to distant villages in due time.

Report by Standley Sakwe Itoe, edited and revised by Daniel Nkemleke