“Caesar and Cleopatra unite Rome and Egypt”: Toys, History and the Playmobil Series

Karolina Kulpa is a linchpin of the Our Mythical Childhood project: it is she who keeps track of the Survey (currently standing at over 1100 entries), a formidable task. Karolina wrote her PhD on the reception of Cleopatra in popular culture, and is incredibly knowledgeable about how toys transmit ideas of the ancient world. I’m therefore delighted to present an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019. The full paper will be published in a collection of the same name. –Elizabeth Hale

I was born under communism in Poland, but my childhood was in the 1990s, when my country was transformed and opened to the so-called “West.” Suddenly, we had greater availability of products, among them toys, almost impossible to achieve previously.  In just a few years, almost unattainable items such as a Barbie doll or Lego sets, became ordinary products found in many children’s rooms. Polish youngsters joined millions of their peers in the world who became consumers of pop-culture products of children’s and youth culture, including the merchandise of the biggest franchises in the world.

It seems now that we live in times where pop culture is one of the most important sources of information about our past (but not necessarily the most reliable), as we can see from thousands of novels, films and animations. One element can be seen clearly: after the Digital Revolution, pop culture has reduced features of historic and mythological figures to easily identifiable, stereotyped characters. For decades, companies producing toys have outdone each other in their bid to attract children and young adults, an important segment of the market. History and historical figures have become products for sale. Manufacturers often refer in their products to Antiquity, especially the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes also of Egypt. We can buy figurines, dolls, costumes and games, and thanks to them children have an opportunity to get into their favourite character and play recreating history or creating their own stories against an “ancient background”.

Curse of the Pharaohs

Take for example, the German toy manufacturer Playmobil’s line of History products titled “Romans and Egyptians.” These figures were presented in the animated short Curse of the Pharaohs, released in March 2017 by this company on You Tube[2], which associated with the story of Cleopatra VII and her relationship with Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.

The image of this Egyptian ruler is a perfect example of the process of transforming a historical figure into a pop culture icon. Popular culture has warped the image of the historic queen and reduced her to a symbol of beautiful, ambitious woman who seduced men and brought about their downfall. Playmobil History’s sets shows a combination of children’s and youth culture with history, not only by portraying Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in the form of plastic figures, but also by drawing the producer’s attention to the educational value for young audiences by adding additional information in the booklet Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, which is available on their website [3][4]. The nine sets from Playmobil History include: Caesar and Cleopatra (9169), Egyptian Troop with Ballista (5388), Egyptian Warrior with Camel (9167), Legionnaire with Ballista (5392), Roman Troop (9168), Roman Chariot (5391), Roman Warriors’ Ship (5390), Tomb Raiders’ Camp (9166) and Pharaoh’s Pyramid (5386).

The most interesting aspect of this series is the film’s plot, which is an alternative history of the meeting between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar with the purpose to unite Egypt with Rome, which unification will “come in peace”. Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), is jealous, because she increased her popularity. That’s why he wants to unleash the Curse of the Pharaoh, hidden in one of the pyramids, and force his sister to start a war with Rome. The plot is very interesting, because it recreates the story of the meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and the relationships between Rome and Egypt during that time.

Curse of the Pharaoh resembles many other animations for children, with a simple plot about adventures and mystery to solve, and with a happy ending. It has didactic elements concerning the history of the 1st century BC, but most of all, the goal of this animation is to entertain. For that reason, the type of narration is adapted to children, the characters are divided into positive protagonists (the wise Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and two Roman soldiers) and villains (Ptolemy and the thieves employed by this pharaoh). Of course, we remember from ancient sources, that during this time, there were two civil wars: first, between Julius Caesar and the other Roman leader, Pompey the Great, second, between Cleopatra and her brother, co-ruler and husband, Ptolemy XIV. In the animation realised by Playmobil, we don’t find the scene of Pompey’s death ordered by Ptolemy’s Council; or the scene when Cleopatra meets Caesar having been secretly brought to the palace in Alexandria by her servants, or any moments from the Alexandrine War, for example the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Furthermore, buildings, like the pyramid full of traps, secret chambers, and magical objects, ships and outfits of all characters are a mixture of some historical facts and pop culture.  People can watch this film and then buy the nine sets of figurines and accessories to reconstruct the story from animation or to create new stories.

Skeleton Mummy… Klickypedia (the definitive Playmobil-pedia)

The first set, Caesar and Cleopatra, includes three figurines of Julius Caesar, the queen Cleopatra and a servant with a long fan from blue feathers, and also a few accessories: a little golden table, a fruit bowl with an apple and a grape, and two glasses of wine. The collection includes also four sets, which present the Roman army and two sets of Egyptian warriors. The Roman legionnaires wear red tunics with silver breastplates, classical Roman helmets called galea, shields similar to scutum and, of course, sandals. We can also see their weapons: long or short swords, wood spears and knives. The officers wear caps and their helmets are decorated with plumes. The set with six legionnaires includes also elements allowing to create a shield wall formation cold tortoise, typical for the Roman army. In the set with chariot, the car has weaponized wheels; the set with a wheeled catapult includes a firing mechanism, which allows to shoot three bullets using rubber balls. A very similar mechanism is included in the next set, Roman Warriors’ Ship, but this time we have five arrows, two regular and three fire arrows. The galley with oars is the biggest Roman, it can float in a pool and be upgraded with motors produced by Playmobil. Below the deck, we have a small storage place to keep all stores, for example two baskets and one box with fruit, bread and carrots, glasses, cups, and two amphorae. A military character of this ship is marked by protecting shields, a small ballista on the deck and a ram on the bow. Please notice a characteristic inscription: SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus [The Roman Senate and People], there is a seal and a Roman military standard in this set and on the cart in the chariot’s set.

Klickypedia–Soldiers of the Pharaohs….

The two sets of the Egyptian army include three soldiers with a ballista on movable wheels and an archer riding a camel. His dromedary could be saddled up, among the accessories, we find reins, a military saddle, and a halter. The ballista works the same way as in the Roman set, but this time we have three arrows with a rubber ending shaped as flames. The soldiers have an olive skin, black hair and wear colorful clothes with collars styled as Egyptian and all of them have gold bracelets on their arms.

The last two sets from Roman and Egyptian series include a Tomb Raiders’ Camp and, a Pharaoh’s Pyramid, which is the biggest set connected to Egypt. The camp consists of a small oasis with one palm three and a well, two thieves, a scorpion, a few bushes, a horse, and a camel. The set presents a moment, when Egyptian thieves have just robbed ancient tombs and pyramids and are getting away with the treasures. The moment of robbery is presented in the last set, the Pharaoh’s Pyramid. This set includes a two-floor pyramid with a few traps, a gold sarcophagus in Anubis’ shape with a mummy, which is composed from bandages and a skeleton, the gold weapons and treasures, a few spiders and a scarab, a second skeleton and the most important, four canopic jars, which could release the curse. We also have three figurines of men, the third thief, an Egyptian soldier with a shield and a spire and a pharaoh. The figurine of the pharaoh is Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, who is presented in an outfit styled as Egyptian (long white dress with colourful collar and belt), with elements typical for Egyptian man-rulers: nemes, a type of crown, with a Ureaus, a fake black beard and the symbols of power: a crook (heka) and a flail (nekhakha). Another pair of symbols could be used for the mummy.

As we can see, the series History: Romans and Egyptians by Playmobil is inspired by historical figures like Caesar, Cleopatra and Ptolemy and representations of historical Roman and Egyptian army, the Roman ship and the Egyptian pyramid. A scholarly analysis of these sets could be made from different points of view. In my opinion, that type of combination of historical facts from ancient sources and popular culture works is very important for reception studies, also in teaching ancient history and its reception. We can use the sets to recreate the scenes from the film, or to create new adventures of Romans in Ptolemaic Egypt under Cleopatra’s rule and, of course, transform the story and characters how we wish: the only limit is our imagination. The toys allow us to participate in missions, in which Roman soldiers rescue the jars with the curse to keep the peace between Egypt and Rome, or, in the jealous Ptolemy’s conspiracy with the thieves aimed at discrediting his wise sister. We can also recreate the moment of the feast in animation, which provides a happy ending of the adventure. Furthermore, a child can recreate his/her own alternative versions of history of Caesar and Cleopatra. With a bit of work, the sets give us also a possibility to show children some known facts about Cleopatra and Caesar, for example that they travelled on the Nile or how they first met. But there is nothing to stop us from using the figurines to enact the wedding of Cleopatra and Caesar (the servant could serve as a priest) or use the thieves as merchants who sail on a ship with their goods. Maybe it would help to answer the question why the story of the Roman leader and the Egyptian queen ended so tragically. We have so many options how to use the sets, play with Ancient history in the background and learn at least the basics about those times. Again, the only limit is our imagination.

Where would the ancient world be without an archaeologist? Klickypedia…

In the humanities and social sciences, we have so many different ways of understanding our past and so many methods of research, especially when studying Antiquity. Each generation transforms the images of historical figures into their own versions, which sometimes leads to simplified and stereotypical representations in culture. The contemporary image of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar emerged from an amalgam (layers) of its historical vision and the image propagated by creators of culture in each period. The Playmobil series could be seen as presenting a next step in the process which made the images of Cleopatra and Caesar evolve from historical figures to icons of pop culture.

–Karolina Kulpa


[1] Quotation after: 9169 Caesar and Cleopatra, Playmobil, online: https://www.playmobil.us/caesar-and-cleopatra/9169.html (accessed: July 19, 2019; website not currently available).

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN3WSGA9DoM&list=FL3R7nRc1pp2XKjglix3AlLA&index=27 (accessed: May 12, 2020).

[3] Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, Playmobil,

http://playmobil.a.bigcontent.io/v1/static/PLAYMOBIL_INFO_HISTORY_ROMANS_2016_03_en (accessed: May 16, 2020).

Our Mythical Childhood–Education…Children’s and Young Adults’ Education Inspired by Classical Antiquity

We’re all working hard, in the Our Mythical Childhood project–and none more so than the team from Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. Lisa Maurice and Ayelet Peer have been developing the Our Mythical Childhood Education survey. It’s a gorgeous site, where they survey a host of educational resources in the teaching of Classical mythology. From textbooks to AV material, worksheets, blogs, exam material, websites, quizzes, lesson plans, syllabi, and the always intriguing category ‘Other,’ this database provides useful and fascinating information for teachers, students, parents, and scholars.

There are currently 100+ items in the survey, and I encourage you to look around.

http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey

Isn’t it attractive! I encourage you to look around!

Before you do (or after you have done!), I also encourage you to read Lisa Maurice’s thoughts about the OME project–I’ve interviewed her below…

Children’s and Young Adults’ Education
Inspired by Classical Antiquity–interview with Lisa Maurice.

Lisa Maurice is Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. She’s published a host of scholarly work, including The Teacher in Ancient Rome (Lexington, 2013), and Screening Divinity
(Edinburgh University Press, June 2019),. She’s also the editor of three volumes in the Brill Metaforms series on the reception of the ancient world in popular culture: The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles (Brill, 2015); Rewriting the Ancient World: Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians in Modern Popular Fiction (Brill, 2017), and The Reception of Ancient Virtues and Vices in Modern Popular Culture (Brill, 2017). Shortly, her new edited collection Our Mythical Education, will be published through the Our Mythical Childhood project.

Thanks for taking my questions, Lisa! I’d like to start by asking you what inspired you to develope Our Mythical Education (OME)?

As you know, OME is part of the wider project, OMC, which aims at developing a pioneering approach to the reception of Classical Antiquity in children’s and young adults’ contemporary culture.   Myth is often the first meeting point that a child has with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome and it is found in a huge variety of educational systems worldwide. 

Most studies or research into how the ancient world is taught focus almost exclusively on the study of the classical languages, which are often thought of as ‘real classics’.  Yet the powerful and gripping stories of classical mythology, which continue to fascinate in myriad cultures and over varied societies, have been frequently been used in fact as vehicles through which to teach or improve other skills, such as literacy, or put across ideological messages.  I go into this further, and many examples of it can be seen, in my forthcoming edited book, Our Mythical Education,which is (very excitingly!) now in the print layout stage at Warsaw University Press, and should be published in the coming months.  So, despite the fact that that little attention has really been paid to it in educational research, the belief that classical myth has played a fundamental role in so many societies and school systems was the initial inspiration behind the overall OME project.  Likewise, the desire to collect, examine and share the amazing materials I was sure existed, and were being used in a range of creative and effective ways, was a main impetus behind the creation of the database.

What do you hope that OME will achieve?

I hope that it will demonstrate just how central Classical myth has been in education, in so many places, and also how versatile a tool it is educationally speaking.  The tales continue to captivate children and youth (and adults!), but they are far more than just ‘stories’, and the complexity of ideas and emotions buried within the narratives have such potential; they are like a fuel source that can still be tapped in so many ways.  I hope that OME will help this potential be realised and will lead to the dissemination and expansion of existing resources.   And particularly, now that so many people are looking for online materials to use in teaching thanks to Covid-19, that they will use the database, and add to it as much as possible.

What sort of material are you looking for/choosing to write about?

We are interested in anything that uses Classical myth, in its broadest sense, within an educational context and framework – we have worksheets, textbooks, audio-visual sources, quizzes and exams, lesson plans, syllabi, blogs, websites, games, comics and more.  This includes materials used in the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek, and in subjects like social studies, history, literature, art, drama etc., and in multiple languages  The possibilities are very wide-ranging!

Can you tell us about some particularly interesting or inspiring items from the OME survey?

I think the sheer breadth of items is what inspires me most.  For example we have workplans and powerpoints from our project working with autistic children here in Israel run by Ayelet Peer under the auspices of our ACCLAIM network (see Susan Deacy’s blogpost on this ). This is an amazing venture, which uses the classical myths to help the students understand and cope with complex emotions, and demonstrates the creative ways in which mythology can be used in education. 

In a different vein, I love movies, and particularly Disney’s Hercules, so I have a soft spot for resources that work with this, like the unit curriculum which describes the 12 labours of Hercules and includes discussion prompts about the myth and how it compares to Hercules in popular culture, specifically the Disney movie.  And now that a remake of this film is happening, I am very curious to see what new resources will be developed when it comes out! 

Magda van Tillburg’s ancient mythis in comic book form…

Finally as a teacher of ancient languages, the comic books by Magda van Tilburg are fabulous – they were new to me, but they present ancient myths in the original languages, along with English translation, in comic book format.  There’s Circe (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/64), Dido and Aeneas (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/59), Ares and Aphrodite (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/63) and Phaethon (http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/education-survey/item/61), as well as a few more we haven’t yet added.  They are free and available online – what an amazing resource, and one I will definitely be using with my own Latin students.

How can people be in touch with submissions or items?

I thought you’d never ask!  You can contact my wonderful colleague Ayelet Peer on ayelet.peer@biu.ac.il and she will send you the short form to fill out and answer any of your questions.  Or email me on lisa.maurice@biu.ac.il. We are ready and waiting eagerly to hear from you!

Thanks! I’m off to consult the survey now–especially to find out more about the comics! — Liz Hale

The Ghostly Governess, by Joan Aiken

As a child, I loved the stories of British-American writer, Joan Aiken. I still do. One of my favourites was ‘The Ghostly Governess.” (1953) In it, Mark and Harriet Armitage, on a family holiday in an old house by the sea, find themselves haunted by the ghost of an elderly governess, Miss Allison. She keeps them up at night, learning maths and deportment, history and Latin.

Miss Allison’s ideas of education are decidedly Victorian. While Harriet lies on her back-board to improve her posture, Mark learns Latin prepositions:

“Mark, let me hear you recite. You should have it by rote now.”

“A, ab, absque,” he began.

“Never let me see you recite like that, Mark. Hands behind your back, feet in the first position, head up.” Mark obeyed peevishly.

“Now begin again.”

“A, ab, absque, coram, de,

Palam, clam, cum, ex and e

tenus, sine, pro, in prae,

Ablative with these we spy.”

“Very good, Mark, though your pronunciation is a little modern,” she said. “You may open that blue tin and have a caraway biscuit.”

The children are not fazed by Ms Allison’s appearance, as fantastic occurrences happen quite often to the Armitages. (Their adventures appear in several short story collections, and have recently been collected in one volume, The Serial Garden.) Together, they search in the attic and find a copy of an old Latin Grammar, and work on their prepositions. “Not too many people have learned Latin preposition s from a ghost. That’s something,” says Harriet.

In Aiken’s world, ghosts are generally troubled by something from their life, and Miss Allison is no exception. When Mark stumbles over the dates of the rulers of England, and misdates Queen Anne’s accession as 1700, instead of 1702, the governess bursts into tears:

“Cedric, you wicked boy,” she sobbbed, “will you never get it right? how can you expect to be a success in life, if you don’t know your dates? And you going into the Navy, too.’ She hid her face in her hands, but through them they could hear her say, “I’m getting so old. How can I die happy if that boy doesn’t know the date of Queen Anne? All the others learned it.”

The children, who are getting tired from all their midnight lessons, realise something is amiss, and they seek advice from the owner of the house, a retired Admiral who lives in a cottage nearby. It turns out he is the Cedric who could not remember Queen Anne’s dates. They reunite him with the ghostly governess, who puts the question to him:

“Just you tell me one thing,” she said, drawing herself up and giving him a piercing look. “When did Queen Anne come to the throne?”

The children gazed at him anxiously, but they need not have worried. He had learned his lesson this time.

“Seventeen-two,” he said promptly, and they sighed with relief.

Miss Allison burst into tears of joy.

“I might have known it,” she sobbed. “My good boy. Why, now you know that, you might even become an admiral, and I can die happy.”

And as they watched her, suddenly, flick! like a candle, she went out, and there was no one in the room but their three selves.

This odd little story has stayed with me. I liked it then, and I like it now: the combination of Victorian schoolroom and post-war British seaside holiday, the resourceful children and the dedicated governess. Aiken’s daughter, Lizza, has written about it (and Aiken’s remarkable literary output, including novels for adults, children, mysteries, ghost stories, fantasies and more) here.

And it’s part of my Latin-life-story, such as it is: I remember, for instance, puzzling over the prepositions. What on earth were they? They must mean something. At first, this was because I had not learned Latin, and did not know what a preposition was; later, because this kind of rote memorisation was a foreign world to my school Latin classes, with extremely battered copies of The Approach to Latin (a 1952 textbook), reel-to-reel recordings of the Cambridge Latin Course, and a range of creative projects such as play-writing, Roman feasts, and reading competitions.

Nothing ghostly about it–indeed, the emphasis was on making things as lively as possible in our small classroom. But something about “The Ghostly Governess” must have stayed with me, because I was always aware that with learning Latin we were part of a tradition much older than we were, much older than our teacher and our school–I wondered about the kids whose graffiti-ed names festooned our battered desks and grammar books, and had a sense that the works we studied had been selected for us many years previously. Indeed The Approach to Latin was published in 1952, around about the same time as “The Ghostly Governess.”

And how wonderful is Miss Allison–a teacher whose dedication goes beyond the grave. I am not sure I would have liked to have been taught by her–especially not to have done deportment and embroidery under her gaze, but I do think that if she had been my teacher, I would, to this day, know my prepositions by rote.

–Elizabeth Hale

Home Time

During the COVID-19 crisis, we’re all at home rather more than usual. Miriam Riverlea writes about how myths and literature are helping her young family think about time at home…

While we’re self-isolating, I’ve been helping Milo, my seven year old son, learn how to tell the time.  He’s got a handle of the basics, but is still struggling with the concept that the numbers on the clock face mean different things whether it is the long or short hand that is pointing to them.  And the arcane term ‘o’clock’ remains a mystery to him. 

Perhaps part of his struggle is that time itself seems to be moving at a different rate as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.  With nowhere to be but at home, the minutes and hours move quite slowly, but the days are passing by at breakneck speed.  What day is it again? we ask each other, and, did that happen yesterday, or was it the day before? 

A treehouse fit for an odyssey!

This is family time, in a way we’ve never really experienced before, freed of the usual routines of work and school and other social outlets.  Amid the anxiety and the uncertainty, I’m trying to keep positive and count our blessings.  There’s much to be thankful for – glorious autumn weather, a big backyard (with a brilliant treehouse), siblings to play with, and unlike so many across the world, job security and good health, at least for the moment. 

Family Time

Books are offering a welcome escape from the grim reality of the daily news.  We’ve been working our way through CS Lewis’ Narnia books in nightly instalments.  We’ve had lots of conversations about the logistics of time travel, the possibility of multiple universes, and the relationship between primary and secondary time.  And I’ve been reflecting on a different kind of time travel as I read aloud from a battered copy of the first three books in the series, which I’ve had since I was eight.  It’s a real treat to share the stories that I loved as a child with my own children.  

And while we are all appreciating its fantasy elements, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe also seems relevant at the moment for its representation of sibling dynamics.  Having adjusted to life at home, my three children are (mostly!) enjoying each other’s company.  But a story that foregrounds the lessons of loyalty, forgiveness, and courage is a valuable reminder of the importance of taking care of each other at this challenging time. 

Leo’s Labyrinth

Alongside books, jigsaw puzzles and board games, we’ve had fun making mazes for each other.  Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (2019) is providing plenty of inspiration. 

Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes

I’ve got an idea for getting the kids to make comic strips featuring mythical characters in unlikely modern settings (the Minotaur goes to the supermarket?), and as the weather gets colder, we might attempt some simple weaving on cardboard looms.  And with no clear sense of when normal life will return, maybe we’ll finally get around to making this model of the Parthenon out of marshmallows and gingerbread.  If so, I promise to share our creation in another post for this blog!

–Miriam Riverlea

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