Thursday, 9 September 2010

Rome: Egeria

I forgot to mention it earlier in the week, but the second part of my light-hearted article on the Mohs Scale of Fantasy Hardness is now up at Discworld Monthly.

Rome has been somewhat abandoned on here while Spartacus: Blood and Sand was on, as two different gory Roman dramas in one week seemed a bit much. However, Spartacus is now finished and we can return to the BBC/HBO vision of Rome, which until we saw Spartacus seemed quite full of sex and violence and now takes its place somewhere between Spartacus and the once-daringly-gory-and-sexy I, Claudius.

It's interesting to watch Rome having seen Spartacus. In a way, the two are not really comparable, as they set out to do completely different things - Rome tells a story that spans decades, while Spartacus focuses on a much shorter period of time and fewer people, telling its story more intimately. However, there are a few points where the two are comparable and, perhaps surprisingly, Spartacus comes off rather better. For one thing, and this is the really surprising part, Spartacus is actually, on balance, more historically accurate so far, mostly because it hasn't dealt with much actual history. More importantly, I care about the characters in Spartacus - not all of them, but certainly Crixus, Spartacus himself and his wife, Barca's unfortunate boyfriend, Lucretia's female slaves and even Varro were sympathetic characters with sympathetic problems and I cared what happened to them. And of all those, only Crixus and Spartacus (and possibly his wife) are real people. When I watch Rome, I care about the historical characters, presumably because in addition to stellar acting their stories are inherently interesting and exciting and I'm already invested in them before the programme starts (and some of them are played by the lovely James Purefoy). But the only fictional character who really caught my attention and who I really care about is Niobe.

I'm not sure exactly why this is. Partly, perhaps, it's an extension of the problem I had frequently while watching Spartacus; I kept waiting and waiting for some sign of rebellion because that's what I knew was coming and that's what I'd tuned in for. In Rome, with two sets of stories running side by side, the problem is exacerbated - every time we switch to the fictional characters, I want to see what's going on with the real people. There's more than that, though. Although there were points where I thought I disliked every character in Spartacus, it had a pleasant and perhaps surprisingly old-fashioned habit of ensuring that every time a character did something really bad, it was either clear that this was a Bad Character we were not supposed to like and who would eventually meet a horrible death (Haldir and Paris Hilton excepted, but there's still time) or, if we were supposed to like this character, they would be very sorry for what they'd done, which was not usually as bad as all that anyway. In Rome, on the other hand... well, there's a reason I call Dodgey Soldier Dodgey. Boring Soldier did improve, if I recall correctly, though possibly not until season 2.

Anyway, much as I carp about it sometimes, Rome is still a fabulous series which is gorgeously shot, brilliantly entertaining and featuring some really impressive performances (on equally impressive sets), so with no more ado, on with the re-cap.

Boring Soldier wants to get away for a dirty weekend in Baiae, but Niobe points out that their daughter is somewhat distressed that her uncle (the real father of the baby that's supposedly hers) is missing presumed dead and is presumably quite keen to find out what happened to him herself. Her sister hanging around the place all the time doesn't help.

Mark Antony is running Rome (a simplification of the real arrangement, by which, according to Plutarch, Lepidus ran Rome and Antony was in charge of Italy and the troops). He is meeting a civilian called Servilius and his wife Poppaea - Servilius played by Simon Callow! Yipee! (Though surely Simon Callow should be playing a more important role - I'd have cast him as Pompey I think). Antony is trying to be a good politician apparently, and this chap is a Pompeian and the most senior senator left in Rome (now everyone else has run away). Antony makes him pass a bunch of laws no one will like, though he gets a promotion out of it. He also flirts with his wife for no discernible reason (for sh**s and giggles, one presumes).

Simon Callow, rather better cast as Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral. With his lover, Batiatus.

Boring does not approve of Mark Antony because he has a prostitute and a dwarf with him while doing business, and this has driven Boring to drink it seems (according to Plutarch, Antony ought to be living in camp with his soldiers, but never mind). Niobe is looking for a new husband for her daughter because apparently the first is no longer good enough. Dodgey tells Niobe's sister he's pretty sure her husband is dead (which he would be, since he killed him) and she correctly assumes this has something to do with Niobe, curses her and leaves.

Atia is still poking her nose where it doesn't belong and insists that Dodgey take Octavian and get rid of his cherry. When Octavia suggests, as a joke, that perhaps she should arrange for him to kill someone as well, she perfectly seriously answers that that will happen in due course anyway. Later, trying on jewellery, she mentions that Antony likes her in Eastern styles, which is a fun touch - a nod to his later Orientalizing taste while with Cleopatra. Boring and Niobe finally make up and get with the sex, which is nice for them. It can't last though (obviously, this is television) - Caesar calls the 13th Legion to join him.

Octavian reluctantly goes to a brothel with Dodgey Soldier and he has a nice little chat with his chosen prostitute before getting down to business. Meanwhile Pompey tries to do a deal via messenger with Antony, who is apparently squatting in his house. Then he has some crying women fight each other with swords they can't hold, naked, for fun. This sounds like the sort of thing Octavian might have accused him of doing much later, during their propaganda war while Antony was in Egypt - having him behave this way now is a valid character interpretation, but it does rely on both Octavian being right and Antony's character not changing much in twenty years.

Atia wants to marry Antony, which would be a useful political alliance on both sides as well as good for her sex life (he wouldn't be able to forget to come over for dinner any more). Unfortunately, she goes a bit too far (it involves predicting Caesar's imminent death) and Antony calls her a 'wicked old harpy', which doesn't go down too well. That's it for Antony - he storms off in a huff all the way to Greece, taking Boring and Dodgey with him (and therefore ruining Boring's sex life in the process as well).

Atia sends Servilia a slave with an impressive tool as a gift, which is supposed to help them when Caesar is defeated, but since, as Octavia rightly points out, Servilia knows full well that Atia was responsible for Caesar chucking her, it's not going to do her much good. (Octavia has a fantastic reaction when she sees the slave, who is wearing only a strategically-placed sock - she exclaims 'Bona Dea!' - 'Good goddess!' - and bursts into a giggle). Octavia is sent with the well-endowed gift and, in the beginning of one of Rome's most completely bizarre and transparently crowd-pleasing plot developments, Servilia flirts with her. But we'll have plenty more on that in the weeks to come.

Octavian is sent to Mediolanum for safety, having put on his (blue? BLUE?!) manly toga, and Boring and Dodgey head off, with a genuinely touching farewell scene between Boring and Niobe. Antony and his troops ride off towards Greece and then they take ship, in some rather impressive waves and driving rain. Boring is convinced an offering they made to Triton will keep them safe but, well, he's not right there. End of episode.

Not a bad episode by any means, though it's mostly memorable for Octavian and Dodgey's trip to the brothel which is not the classiest thing to be memorable for. No Pompey and his minions at all this week, except for one messenger who ended up on his back in the pool in the atrium (not in the good way). Boring and Dodgey's shipwreck and Servilia's flirting are leading us into some of Rome's least plausible storylines over the next few episodes, but we're also getting closer to the subject of Lucan's Civil War, the battle at Pharsalus, which is good. You win some, you lose some, historically speaking.


  1. The Romans had time to do all that, and learn Latin too? Wow!

  2. Well, he got more interesting as time went on! :)

  3. Slightly off-topic, but have you seen a film called The Last Legion? I watched it in the mistaken belief that it was a film version of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth that I had heard about. It isn’t, being instead a end-of-empire Dark Ages farrago, in which it is revealed that Excalibur was originally forged for Julius Caesar, who seems to have been the only man in Rome to use a huge medieval-type longsword rather than a regular gladius. It also features Ben Kinglsey as Merlinus Ambrosius with an intermittent Welsh accent, emissaries from the Eastern Empire who appear as traditional Sinister Orientals, complete with pointy hats and ninja fighting skills and a lot of hairy Goths. Your post reminded me of it, because it also features John Hannah, who seems to be cornering the market in treacherous Romans, and very confusingly, a completely different character called Batiatus. I zoned out about half-way through, after not-Batiatus had been killed off and the rest of the cast inexplicably headed for Britain, but you might be able to get a bit more out of it.

  4. I haven't seen it, but there's a brilliant post on it over at the Life of Antoninus Pius that makes me *want* to see it, purely because it sounds like a good laugh!

  5. I agree with you. I like Spartacus more. Rome didn't manage to attract my attention enough. I don't like movies which want to tell you what exactly was the history. Nobody can be sure about the past events nor some producer can.


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