5 Reasons Why We’re SUPER Excited About ‘Horrible Histories: The Movie’

Horrible Histories is making a movie! What’s even more exciting is that it’s set in the Roman world of the 1st century CE.

Obviously, as researchers of the ancient world and fans of Horrible Histories, here at Ancient Herstories we’re a little bit giddy about it all.  

Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. It’s set in Rome and Britain during the reign of the Emperor Nero

One of the so-called ‘bad emperors’, Nero (54-68 CE) is the Roman ruler we all love to hate. Flamboyant and lavish in his spending habits, Nero had a reputation for causing chaos in Rome and beyond. Some of his more fantastic (and probably fantastical) deeds include:

  • Chillin’ whilst Rome burned – to be fair, in reality, he was probably more helpful than ancient sources suggest.
  • Kicking his pregnant wife Poppaea Sabina to death.
  • Forcing an enslaved person called Sporus, who looked like Sabina, to undergo a form of primitive gender reassignment surgery and take Sabina’s place in his household. We’re going to look at Sporus on Ancient Herstories at a later time.
  • Plotting and eventually succeeding in killing his mother, Agrippina. A collapsible boat was involved in one of his schemes…

In other words, Nero was probably a deeply unpleasant individual, but monsters are always more fun to study than goody two-shoes.

2. Kate Nash as Boudicca

Nero’s reign also saw a revolt in Britain led by Boudicca of the Iceni (60/61 CE), a famously fearsome female warrior queen who led an army against the Roman occupiers and destroyed at least three Roman settlements.

Kate Nash is taking on the role of Boudicca. With her fabulous flame red hair and kickass moves from her recent work on Netflix’s GLOW (as Rhonda ‘Britannica’ Richardson), she’ll basically need to swap her wrestling leotard for some natural fibres and a bit of armour!

Obviously, we’re not going to miss covering Boudicca on Ancient Herstories – keep up to date with our work by subscribing through WordPress, or on social media.

3. Kim Cattrall as Agrippina

As an actress and a person, Cattrall appears to be highly capable, confident, and someone who doesn’t take any sh*t. Cattrall refused to make nice after years of being screwed over by the Sex and the City producers (who paid co-star Sarah Jessica Parker way more, despite Cattrall’s fearless portrayal of the sexually liberated Samantha Jones). Cattrall is playing Agrippina, Nero’s mother, an indomitable individual who schemed to place her ungrateful son on the throne.

We have no doubt that Cattrall will harness some of the fearlessness she shows in life and on the screen in playing one of the most complex and cunning women from the Roman world!

4. Derek Jacobi is the Emperor Claudius

Derek Jacobi played Claudius in the BBC’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God (1976), and he’s going to play t. He was, is, and shall always be fabulous – need we say more?

5. We get to relive our childhoods

We were brought up reading and later watching the Horrible Histories series. It’s one of the reasons why this writer became an Ancient Historian – and why I can’t seem to leave school…

Horrible Histories: The Movie is out on Friday 26th July 2019.


Mars, Venus and Mercury: Antiquated Gender Symbols

‘Men are from Mars and women are from Venus’, is thankfully now an outdated adage. But the gender symbols we have been used for centuries to differentiate the gender binary and, now updated to include non-binary genders, remain in use – including on this site! So where do these symbols come from?


Allegedly, these symbols originate from myth. The Spear and Shield of Mars is allegedly the origin of the male symbol. According to Aulus Gellius and Cassius Dio, a religious relic thought to be the spear of Mars was supposedly kept in the former residence of the kings of Rome (the Regia). The gender symbol as we know it is a planetary symbol for Mars.

The Mirror of Venus, by contrast, is associated with the goddess Venus’ hand mirror, reflecting the vanity and pride of woman kind – hmph! Rationale aside, the symbol is used as a planetary symbol for Venus.

1515 Translation of Albumasar, an early Persian astrologer. Top left is Mars with spear and shield, bottom right is Venus with her hand mirror.


So who used these planetary symbols? These symbols are first found in Greek Papyri, but seem to have been adopted from Bablyonian symbols made available to the Ancient Greeks by the conquest of Alexander the Great in 331 BC.

Venus Tablet of Amissaduqa, C17 BCE a Babylonian tablet denoting the position of Venus in different years.

Even the Latin text above is a translation of a Persian astrologer, illustrated with woodcuts depicting Mars and Venus holding the shield, spear and hand mirror associated with the symbols. the explanations for the symbols, then, are not mutually exclusive.


Carl Linnaeus was the first to use these astrological symbols, linked to Venus and Mars, in order to differentiate the sex of plants in 1753. In his Species Plantarum, he used Venus for female plants, Mars for male and the hybrid symbol (Mercury) for hermaphroditic plants.

1833 print of Carl Linnaeus, Swedish Botanist.


After the death of Linnaeus, Bezenius applied Latin names for metals on the periodic table. However, some chemists continued to use shorthand symbols for the planets associated with each metal, bringing us back to the astrological symbols. As a result:

Mars= iron= weapons

Venus= copper= hand mirror


Perhaps the simplest explanation takes us back to the Greek alphabet. Here the letters derive from the initials of the Greek planetary names for Mars and Venus. (The Greek names for these deities are Aries and Aphrodite).

Mars= Thouros

Venus= Phosphorous (The Morning Star)

Then and Now

These symbols recur through myth, astrology and science with overlapping explanations, but the paradigms of Venus and Mars remain throughout. Does this really vaunt the tried stereotype of ornamental women and violent men? Maybe, but maybe not. In Pompeiian wall art for example, Mars is obscured by Venus and below, albeit unusually, appears more scantily clad than she does. Venus’ power in myth and status as a religious figure in Rome puts her on an equal status with Mars, though the same was not the case for Roman women.

C1 CE wall painting of Mars and Venus accompanied by Cupid in Pompeii.

Now, the greatest issue with these gender symbols is that they present a binary, rather than the increasingly diversified spectrum of gender identity.



Berzelius, J.J. 1814. On the Chemical Signs. Ann. of Phil. 3. 51-2. 362-4.

Schott, G.D. 2005. Sex Symbols Ancient and Modern: Their Origins and Iconography on the Pedigree. British Medical Journal. 331. 1509-10.

Stearn, W.T. 1962. The Origin of the Male and Female Symbols of Biology. Taxon. 11.4. 109-13.

‘Historical Roasts: Cleopatra’ Review: A Surprisingly Sharp Take on Cleopatra’s Life, Loves and Power

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes when I sat down to watch Historical Roasts’ Cleopatra episode. I’d previously watched two episodes – President Abraham Lincoln and Queen’s Freddie Mercury – and found them to be brash, overly simplified portrayals of two complex figures. The jokes mainly centred around Mary Todd Lincoln’s addiction and mental health problems, and Mercury’s sexuality. They were, to say the least, a little old hat (or bonnet, if you’d prefer).

I get it: it’s comedy not a documentary. However, it’s not impossible to be funny and acknowledge that our understanding of these figures is based on years of misinformation and prejudice. So, it was with heavy heart that I sat down (with a medicinal bottle of wine – how very Mary Todd…) to watch the Cleopatra episode. 

However, I was pleasantly surprised by what Historical Roasts had to say on the life and times of Cleopatra.

Roastmaster General Jeff Ross opened the episode by acknowledging that powerful women are often omitted from our history books – an uncomfortable fact which is one of the reasons why Ancient Herstories exists. Similarly, the introduction of Cleopatra as “one of the most badass women ever to live” and “one of the great mysteries of history” showed an element of understanding the complexities of this fascinating figure.

The guests roasting Cleopatra (played by Ayden Mayeri) included: Julius Caesar (Ryan Phillippe), Mark Antony (Ken Marino), Isis (Bridget Everett), and William Shakespeare (Rory Scovel).

Phillippe played Caesar as a jilted lover, jealous of Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s relationship, and it was quite refreshing to see Caesar presented as anything other than the great imperator. 

I was also impressed by the fact that someone has clearly researched Cleopatra carefully. It wasn’t just the big events that were mentioned, but smaller details which really surprised me, such as the drowning of Cleopatra’s eldest brother and the statue Caesar erected of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus, Rome. 

Historical Roasts stuck to Plutarch’s controversial account of Cleopatra being smuggled to see Caesar for the first time in a rug – after all, who doesn’t love that story? – but there were some serious red flags when Caesar and Mark Antony were described as Cleopatra’s “husbands” and Octavian as the “emperor”.

What was also incredible was that no one went on ad nauseum about Cleopatra’s beauty. Her wit, armies, and political savvy were mentioned, alongside frequent references to her alleged sexual proclivity, but not her beauty. This is noteworthy as Cleopatra’s ‘beauty’ is something which continues to elicit debate despite the fact that we talk so much more (as Historical Roasts’ episode shows) about her power and other qualities. 

That said, there were plenty of references to Cleopatra’s sex life, something which the ancient authors used to attack powerful women generally. There were the unusual incest jokes as Cleopatra, as generations of Ptolemies had before her, married her two brothers at different times to strengthen their appearance as co-regents. However, what Historical Roasts didn’t mention was that Cleopatra’s brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, were in their early teens when Cleopatra married them. HR probably would have gotten some incredibly gross mileage out of this fact… 

However, from the mouth of Cleopatra herself, there was the acknowledgement that our knowledge of Cleopatra has been warped by our sources: men writing second hand accounts, who labelled Cleopatra as a “whore queen”, and forgot to stress her other qualities – the good and the bad. As Historical Roasts’ version of Cleopatra said, “that’s just lazy writing”, and I can’t help but agree! 

One major issue I had with the episode is that, although the appearance of the goddess Isis was flamboyant and good fun, there were real women in Cleopatra’s life who may have been good options to roast: her sisters Berenice and Arsinoë.  

On a final note, the eyeliner game was on point, and the costumes were pleasingly gaudy – who isn’t a huge fan of the loin cloth? 

All in all, a good effort in which Historical Roasts presented Cleopatra as an iconic powerhouse who “showed future generations that women could not only rule the world but make the rules.”

Find out more about Cleopatra on Ancient Herstories when we launch in September!