• Ben

Succession

Human nature remains constant, whether it's 511 or 2019.


It may seem strange for a website and podcast focused on medieval French history to write a post about a television show chronicling the dysfunction of a media mogul’s 21stcentury family. But as I‘ve watched more and more episodes of HBO’s Succession, I’ve been struck by the similarities that exist between the fictional Roy family from the show and the real-life family of Clovis, the first great French monarch, in the 6th century.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Jesse Armstrong, Succession's creator,was asked who the show is based on. The assumption behind the question was that Armstrong was going to pinpoint a single media mogul and their family, but his answer was more telling than that:


"The amazing thing about this stuff is that it’s everywhere. Sumner Redstone’s family. The Mercers. The Murdochs. Conrad Black. Sometimes people have said, it’s really about these people, isn’t it? It’s based on them. And: No. We read widely and we do take elements of stuff.”


Armstrong’s answer, and the show as a whole, points to a dynamic that has affected powerful families for as long as people have been trying to boss each other around. You see, as people we never really change. I mentioned this in the first episode of T+M, and I stand by it. Human beings live in environments with finite resources and multiple competing demands for those resources. When somebody manages to collect a lot of stuff, be it gold, diamonds, oil, cash or power, other people who don't have those things covet them and want them for themselves. The nature of the coveted resources change over time, but human nature remains constant.


To my point, enter Clovis and the Merovingians. Clovis amassed a kingdom with a physical size beyond what most Franks would have imagined possible when he came to the throne in 481; he also amassed an equally impressive war chest of treasure and plunder. Clovis was the biggest, baddest guy on the block when he was alive, and no one would was able to take his kingdom and its assets away from him. The moment he died, however, the flood gates opened and, rather than picking one person to succeed him and pass on the crown to, Clovis instead allowed the Kingdom to be split in four parts. His wife, Clotilde, tried to watch over the distribution of land, gold and power, but in no time at all the brothers attacked each other, uncles killed nephews, and sides hardened against one another. Basically, the Merovingians couldn't handle the thought of someone having more "stuff" than them, even if that someone was their own flesh and blood, and the thought made them murderous.

Clotilde presides over the split of the Frankish Kingdom with her sons Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert, and Clotaire after the death of Clovis

Now, enter Succession. It's a 21st century family and the resources are different, but the similarities are striking. An older patriach creates an empire (a media empire in this case), has four children, then grows old and suffers a brain hemmorage. The moment he goes down, the kids start fighting over the empire. There are people who try to manage the situation, but there's never any real doubt that this is going to end badly. Battlegrounds have been replaced with courtrooms, and money and technology have replaced physical territory, but the underlying emotions driving both families is the same.


All of this makes Succession particularly fun for me to watch, especially since I rarely come up for air out of the Middle Ages between the books I read and the shows and movies I watch. The show is a reminder that we’re not removed from history, we’re just on the knife’s edge. Things changes, technology advances, and the players on the stage rotate all of the time.


But despite all of this, human nature remains constant - whether it's 511 or 2019.

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