For Your Information: All epsiodes of Rome are chock-full of sex and violence right from the beginning and are not suitable for young children/people of a sensitive nature. Being an introduction to a new (for the blog) series and a full episode re-cap, this post is very, very long. Enjoy.
Rome was co-funded by the BBC and HBO and filmed in Italy with a largely British cast. It ran for two seasons before being cancelled for being too expensive (I'm guessing HBO were calling the shots here, since that isn't how British TV usually works - we don't 'cancel' things, we just sort of stop making them, well, except for Doctor Who).
I really enjoyed Rome, though it certainly has its flaws. It's not, as it wants to be, this generation's I, Claudius - it's not nearly faithful enough to the sources for that. I, Claudius had the occasional moment where it stepped outside the bounds of historical probability - Caligula eating his unborn foetus being the prime example - but Rome does this sort of thing all the time. On the other hand, it considerably ups the ante on sex and violence - too much, as some of the violent sex scenes are deeply unpleasant to watch - and escapes the studio-bound BBC confines of I, Claudius, something pretty much every reviewer noted at the time. Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with Clavdivs' approach, even if it did lead to the odd moment of 'really, shouldn't there be a crowd in this amphitheatre?' but the sets on Rome are absolutely gorgeous and it is lovely to see filming out in the Italian countryside.
Rome also makes the clear choice from the start to devote about 50% of its running time to actual historical characters, and about 50% to some 'ordinary heroes' who interact with said historical characters. I'm in two minds about this. I have nothing against including fictional characters in historical works, and my favourite authors of Roman-set historical fiction all do this to different extents. (Caroline Lawrence includes historical figures alongside fictional stories, which is a bit different but works very well, Lindsey Davies tells largely fictional stories which sometimes interconnect with historical figures and their history, and Steven Saylor tells historical stories through his fictional main characters' eyes - by far the closest to what Rome is trying to do and, I have to say, he perhaps does it more successfully). I'm always a bit wary when people say they want 'ordinary' characters though, partly because in a terribly old-fashioned, snobby and out of date way, I tend to think the emperors and so on are more interesting. I don't feel that shoving in someone 'ordinary' will help me to enjoy the story, it just gets in the way of the good bit. But it depends on context and on how its done - Brother Cadfael, for example, is a very 'ordinary' character, but I'm happy to follow him. In Rome's case, part of the problem is that these two just aren't always that well written, and they are required to see and do far too much while not ageing at all over twenty years of history. As a result, I'm afraid I continue to be far more intersted in the 50% of historical story than the 50% of totally fictional story. It's not that I'm against the concept entirely, but I don't think it's done especially well here.
I first watched sereis 1 of Rome with my then-housemate, also an historian, during the year we lived together in Bristol. Since we were both historians, and both possessed of a somewhat snarky, sarcastic sense of humour, we thoroughly enjoyed pulling it apart together at every opportunity. In memory of this blissful time, I shall refer to Ordinary Hero no.1, Lucius Vorenus as Boring Soldier. (Half the time we struggled to work out which historical character was which, we had no chance of remembering the names of the random soldier people, so we had to use nicknames to talk to each other about them). We used to call Ordinary Hero no.2, Titus Pullo, Interesting Soldier, because he seemed to have much more personality than no.1, but eventually he committed one too many unpleasant crimes and became Formally Interesting Soldier. Looking back, I see this behaviour was actually there from the start, we just talked over it the first time, so I shall refer to him here as Dodgey Soldier.
Dodgey Soldier (left) and Boring Soldier (right)
I love the opening credits to Rome. The music is great - just exotic and oriental enough without being too much - and the graphics are even better. Inspired by the graffitti found at Pompeii, they're lively, vibrant, colourful - love the Medusa's head with snakes coming out at the audience - and a perfect introduction to the tone of the series. I could possibly do without the exploding head and some of the more pornographic bits, but there we go.
The first episode opens with a map and a bit of narration to orient us. Pompey and Caesar are sharing power and Pompey is in Rome while Caesar fights in Gaul. The narrator gives away his own preference when he says Pompey has 'kept the peace' while Ceasar 'wages war'.
Then we're introduced to our two heroes, Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier. The opening battle sequence is clearly inspired by Gladiator - it even uses the same colour palette - but can't quite match Gladiator is action direction (and there's no music). It is doing its very best to match Gladiator in blood and gore though. Where Clavdivs took a good six hours or so to get to blood and guts (Gemellus' head appeared over halfway through) Rome presents us with bloody battle, immediately followed by Dodgey Soldier being whipped for committing some misdemeanor or other. Then, still within the first ten minutes, we have full male nudity as well, as Vercingetorix, king of the Gauls, is stripped naked and made to kneel before Caesar.
As is clear from this description of the first 5-10 minutes, Rome is obsessed with throwing as much sex and violence at the screen as possible. Everyone - Rome was sexy! Rome was violent! Rome is interesting because it has sex and violence! Basically no Roman was not a nymphomaniac/sex addict and they all beat each other up and stabbed each other all the time! Now, I've nothing against a bit of sex and violence where it's appropriate and Rome, home of gladiatorial competitions, was a bit more violent than our culture. But people still lived and acted normally there, and the amount of sex and violence thrown at the screen in Rome is the very definition is utterly gratuitous.
Caesar receives news that his daughter Julia, Pompey's wife, has died in childbirth (as has the baby). We're treated to her death scene, covered in blood, as Pompey weeps over her. I have to say, I don't think Roman men went anywhere near childbirth - if the woman died, the midwife would tell them afterwards. On the other hand, it shows us a tragic scene of a potentially affectionate relationship (though politically motivated) and there's something to be said for refusing to shy away from the horrors of childbirth, though the blood wasn't actually strictly necessary.
Caesar looks vaguely sad, but his primary reaction is to start thinking about which of his relatives to marry Pompey off to next. Mark Anthony, played by the lovely James Purefoy (mmmmm....) looks more actually upset, and offers sympathy.
Back in Rome, we follow a horse that looks like Shadowfax around for a bit, past the town crier (did they even have town criers in ancient Rome? I honestly have no idea. Answers on a postcard).
Our first vigourous sex scene, which introduces us to Octavian's (the future Augustus) mother Atia, played by Polly Walker (great actress, also seen in Enchanted April and some random and very bizarre but thoroughly enjoyable film about Charless II I saw late at night on TV once). Atis, for the purposes of Rome, is basically, Livia, Messalina and Agrippinilla all rolled into one. Mostly, she's Livia - politically scheming and ambitious. But unlike the Livia of I, Claudius, who presumably used sex to get her way with Augustus but whose strengths lay mostly in the areas of poisoning and blackmailing, Atia uses sex to try to get whatever it is she has decided she wants (in this particular case, Shadowfax). (The Livia of Rome is a different story, but we'll get to her much, much later). In this respect she is a little like Messalina, but unlike Messalina, the sex itself is rarely the ultimate aim for Atia, just as it usually wasn't for Agrippinilla. Also, the most important difference between those three and Atia is that as far as I'm aware, there is no historical basis for any of this stuff with Atia at all. We don't actually know that much about Augustus' mother, other than that later there were stories told about how she'd been impregnated by a serpent and dreamed her guts were carried up to heaven, but those are entirely to do with implying a divine paternity and divine plan for Augustus himself (Suetonius, Augustus, 94). The most the history books say about Atia is that she was Caesar's niece (she also remarried after his father's death, so there ought to be a stepfather around somewhere, but we never see him). Whatever Livia, Messalina and Agrippinilla may have been like in real life, everything they do in I, Claudius is something that they were actually accused of doing by an ancint historian. Pretty much everything Atia says or does throughout the whole series, on the other hand, is pure fiction, and nymphomaniac fiction at that.
She's standing fully naked, seen from the front, right in front of the camera two mintues later, encouraging her son to come and chat while she's in the bath. I've nothing against nudity in its place, but this is a rther pathetic attempt to be sexy and daring on the TV people's part. Roman baths were strictly segregated along gender lines.
And finally, we see Octavian himself. Max Pirkis, who plays Octavian for most of the series, is absolutely brilliant. He is cool calm, collected and utterly ruthless - the perfect Octavian. (Although he is a bit put off by his mother's nudity, but then, who wouldn't be?). Atia orders him to take Shadowfax to Caesar in Gaul personally, totally unbothered by the possibility of his getting killed on the way - another difference between her and Livia/Agrippiniila, as her scheming is, like Messalina's pure, unadaulterated self-interest, not self-interest resting on her son's future.
Yes, this boy will eventually grow up to be BRIAN BLESSED
Cato, wearing nothing but a bathsheet by the looks of things, makes a speech in the Senate. It's very boring. But the Senate, unlike the little bit seen in Clavdivs on their budget, is nicely full. Pompey makes a speech (defending Caesar, a bit of misdirection on his part), then Cicero does - and he's Mr Collins! David Bamber is brilliant - just enough of Mr Collins' self-importance, with just enough talent in public speaking to pull it off.
Scipio and Cato arrange for Pompey to marry Scipio's daughter Cornelia - with her standing right there, while a rude mime is acted out. Cornelia points out that she shouldn't be where there is a 'lewd woman' on stage, demonstrating her modesty, but failing to point out that you don't arrange political marriages at mimes, nor do you do so with the woman concered standing there. The mime is just another excuse to show a bare bottom - look how delinquent and sex-filled Rome is! Cato insists that Pompey must betray Caesar but Pompey has ideological issues.
Octavian has a chat with his sister Octavia, played by Kerry Condon. I saw her play Ophelia on stage once (actually twice) - she was very good, though we weren't sure about the bits of paper she was using for mad Ophelia's flowers.
Octavian rides off with Shadowfax. The Italian countryside is very pretty.
Conversation between Caesar and Brutus - oooh! I'm guessing that all that most viewers know about Brutus is that he killed Caesar, so every meeting between the two has a line of tension running through it, played up in the acting and direction. As far as I can tell, this adaptation doesn't go with the theory that Brutus was actually Caesar's illegitimate offspring, though it does include Caesar's affair with Brutus' mother, so perhaps we're supposed to infer it. Caesar tells Brutus that his eagle has been stolen and now his troops are mutinous (all together now - "Quintilius Varus, WHERE ARE MY EAGLES?!"). I confess, I'm not very familiar with Caesar's Gallic Wars, so I'm not sure if there's any historical basis in all of this.
I'm pretty sure there isn't any in Octavian' story, where the pace is picking up as he and his slaves are attacked by brigands. I'm not aware of any story about taking a horse to Gaul and getting attacked attached to Octavian, unless I've just forgotten something I read a long time ago. (There is an exciting story about Julius Caesar being kidnapped by pirates, but that takes place in his younger days, the bit that never gets dramatised).
Mark Anthony demans Boring Soldier's help with getting the eagle back because apparently Boring Soldier is the only man in the army with a brain. Boring Soldier rescues Dodgey Soldier from imminent crucifixion/being sent to the arena (there's a lot more screaming and begging for death here than in your average Biblical dramatisation) and takes him along to help. Dodgey Soldier is appropriately grateful, until Boring Soldier tells him he only did it because they probably won't succeed and he wanted to take someone who was already disgraced and wouldbe no great loss when they failed and were punished.
Brutus comes home to mummy (Lindsey Duncan, brilliant as ever) who wants to know if Caesar mentioned her. He has written her a love letter - aww, how sweet. They have dinner with Pompey, where Brutus insists he is bored of politics, but spills the beans on Caesar to Pompey.
Caesar has written to Atia to ask her to marry a suitable girl off to Pompey. Then we see something really odd - Atia, accompanied by Octavia, performing the taurobolium, a rite of the cult of Magna Mater, Cybele. This rite is known only from the second century AD onwards (the cult goes much, much further back, but there isn't earlier evidence for the ritual) and was performed by those initiated into the cult of Magna Mater. It had to be repeated after 20 years, suggesting some kind of protective function for it. So why is it being performed by an important and respectable Roman matron in the first century BC, apparently purely to ask for some advice? Atia could have been initiated into the cult of Magna Mater, but probably wasn't, as it wasn't always considered the most respectable of cults (there were stories of young men castrating themselves in fits of religious ecstacy). And to get the information she wants - that Octavian will be safe - she could just go to an oracle. Also, Atia, unlike Clavdivs' Livia, hardly ever mentions religion or divine prophecy as a motivation for her actions and never tells the dream and serpent stories actually attributed to her - so why is she soaking herself in bull's blood? One can't escape the impression that the writers heard about the taurobolium, thought it sounded exciting, and just shoved it in wherever they thought it might fit.
Atia undergoing the taurobolium
Following this exciting bath, she tells Octavia that she must divorce her husband, to whom she is happily married, and marry Pompey. Atia is totally mystified when Glabius, the husband, and the slaves weep as Octavia is led away. Then she has Octavia and Pompey sleep together, even though they cannot get married for another month, and we see Octavia kneel, naked on the bed in prepartion. This is getting really, really silly now - I'm not saying no one ever got horny before the wedding night in ancient Rome, but political marriages are delicate things and they're more about the politics than the sex (which can be had from slaves, prostitutes and mistresses whenever the man feels like it, if he wants). There's no reason to risk pregnancy before the wedding, especially when the wedding isn't yet finalised (and won't be).
We cut from this delightful scene to hear Dodgey Soldier telling Boring Soldier all about how he likes to rape British women. Er, thanks for that, that won't give me nightmares at all. Again, I'm not saying it didn't happen, as it certainly did - but this is the 'hero' I'm meant to follow for the next two seasons? I'm supposed to like this guy? One hopes there were some soldiers less keen on the violent abuse of women, and indeed, Boring Soldier, for all his dullness, does appear less interested in talking about women at all. Boring Soldier is occasionally interested though - he received a special dispensation to get married and has a wife, Niobe, whom he has not seen for well over seven years.
The Soldiers get attacked and lose their horses, then come upon the gang that kidnapped Octavian. Liking the look of Shadowfax, the two of them immediately overpower the whole gang and mistake Octavian for a slave. The humiliation on his face, and at the same time the careful, practical willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive as he is forced to say 'please' to Dodgey Soldier to be released is brilliantly done. Then he thoroughly beats up a dying soldier with a stick, which also demonstrates his capacity for violent revenge, which we'll see again later. Octavian then gives the Soldiers a lecture in modern politics, insisting that Caesar doesn't actually care about the loss of the eagle, and it is useful to him, because Pompey will think this is a real weakness, when in fact it means no such thing. Caesar is trying to lure Pompey to attack him first, so he can the moral high ground in inevitable battle. (All this from Mr WHERE ARE MY EAGLES? himself!). Then it all turns out to be immaterial as the stolen eagle falls out of the dead gang's packs. The Soldiers ride triumphantly back into camp with Octavian, whom Caesar seems genuinely pleased to see. It turns out the gang were Pompey's men, and Caesar notes that Pompey has 'the cunning of a sardine', which made me laugh. They send the head of Pompey's man back to Pompey and tell him they're heading for Ravenna.
Pompey marries Cornelia. Atia blames Octavia for not being sexy enough - as if any man would marry his political enemy's relative o matter how attractive she is. Atia realises this and tries to comfort Octavia, but refuses to let her go back to Glabius, insisting that she will find someone better. Octavia shows that she is her mother's daughter after all when she says she wants Pompey dead for dishonouring her.
The episode ends on a hot of a burning town in Gaul as the recovered Eagle is marched away. What town? Why is it burning? Either they didn't tell us or I wasn't paying attention. But look everyone - see how violent Rome was!
I really do enjoy Rome - it's beautifully filmed and the actors are all wonderful. I have nothing against sex and violence in their place - it's just that in Rome, too often the sex and violence seems to be the story, rather than serving the story. The other problem is that it needs to follow the 'season' format of American television, so plots are invented to drag certain characters across stories, the Soldiers end up witnessing every important event in Roman history, interesting characters are kept on after they should have died - perhaps the 'season' format isn't the problem, perhaps the writers would have done all that anyway, but it feels like the story is being stretched in all sorts of ways that don't really fit it, to try to fit a super-imposed structure.
It is great fun though - and sitting back watching it with some wine and a snarky historian friend and fellow admirer of the lovely James Purefoy (mmmmm...) is thoroughly enjoyable evening in.
Mmmm, James Purefoy