Monday, 21 May 2012

Rome: A Necessary Fiction

We're approaching the end of Rome, so this might be a good point to pause for a moment and take stock of where we are, history-wise.

As you probably know, Rome was cancelled while they were halfway through filming season 2. Originally, the plan was for season 2 to cover a fairly small amount of time (I think I remember reading somewhere that it was supposed to end with the Battle of Philippi, eventually covered in episode 6, or possibly its immediate aftermath). This would have meant the series never got to cover some of the most famous and most hotly anticipated incidents in this period of history - in particular, Antony and Cleopatra's relationship and their eventual defeat and suicide. Fans of I, Claudius would also have been denied the chance to see the Rome writers' interpretation of one of that series' most famous and colourful characters, Livia.

So, the writers decided to change their plan for the end of the season and speed up the plot. And we're talking F1/Nascar/Moto GP/choose your racing metaphor of choice levels of acceleration here. Episode 7, 'Death Mask', starts sometime after the Battle of Philippi, which was in 43 BC. So it's 42 BC at the latest. By the end of the episode, having entirely omitted Antony and Cleopatra's first relationship, it's at least 40 BC. This episode starts sometime after that and ends in 37 BC, with Antony (re)joining Cleopatra. Episode 9 skips the years 37-32 and starts somewhere around 32 or 31, in the lead-up to the Battle of Actium, and Episode 10 takes place in 31-30, from Actium to Antony and Cleopatra's suicides.

As far as the historical characters go, this isn't too disastrous. Shakespeare compressed Antony and Cleopatra's relationship and the events of the civil war after all, so why shouldn't Rome?! No, the problem lies in the attempts to conclude Pullo and Vorenus' story. The structure of the show requires their story to progress at much the same pace as the historical story, but the nature of the plot they were in the middle of doesn't work when spread across a nearly ten-year period. Eirene, for example, is pregnant in episode 6, 'Philippi' - in 43 BC - and still pregnant with the same child at the beginning of this episode, 3 years later. Caesarion, who is an historical character, ages at an appropriate rate but Vorenus' younger daughter and Niobe's son don't age in over a decade (I'll give them the elder daughter, who's old enough that her aging would be less obvious).

I don't disagree with the writers' decision on this. I'd have loved to see an entire season of Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt, and maybe even get Sextus Pompey and some pirates in there, but it wasn't to be, so I'm glad they decided to cover as much of the juiciest ground as possible, and get right up ton Octavian's final victory. It gives the series a really nice sense of closure and means they've covered the whole of the end of the Republic (plus you can move straight on to the first episode of I, Claudius afterwards). I do wish, though, that they'd wrapped up some of the soapy storylines - which, after all, they had more control over - a little more logically and perahps a little more quickly. But then, I was always more interested in the historical parts anyway.

The upshot of all this for this particular episode is that this episode has to occupy a strange sort of nether-time, drifting loosely away from any specific year in history, in order to get our characters to where they need to be for the last two epsiodes to cover the final war between Antony and Octavian.

As we open, Octavian is delivering a history lesson about the rape of the Sabine women and declares that the women of Rome are the ones who have conquered the world with their steely virtue and chaste morals (you just know at this point that this is the episode where we're going to meet Livia). It's accompanied by a montage reminding us of the various relationships currently in play - Atia has forgiven Antony enough to still be sleeping with him, Agrippa and Octavia are still together too, Gaia is evil.

Octavian here sets out his moral programme of anti-adultery and pro-marriage laws. In real life, this was something he did when firmly ensconced as emperor, and it was his daughter and grand-daughter who suffered under the laws (see I, Claudius). They've been moved up here (though to be fair, he clearly states that these are laws he will enact 'in the future'), partly to illustrate this aspect of Octavian's character, but also because this will provide the impetus for the accelerated break-up of Antony and Octavia's marriage and, by extension, the end of the Republic (partly). Maecenas thinks it's 'very amusing' (he'd be gone from Octavian's group of friends by the time the laws were enacted).

Maecenas points Livia out to Octavian as a prospective wife. He says she has just one child and she doesn't appear to be pregnant, as she was historically - a great but of genuine ancient gossip that sadly had to be jettisoned for time. She is already married though, and apart from the fact Octavian was already married and had a daughter, it's all roughly as recorded. Livia here comes across as a rather innocent-seeming girl. Appearances can be deceptive.

Timon is leaving for Jerusalem with his family, and Jocasta and Posca turn out, in a refreshing change from everyone else's misery, to be happily married. OK, this is based largely on him buying her stuff, but they both seem pretty content. Posca has a super secret meeting with Maecenas at which he, a freedman, has to point out to Maecenas that his slaves probably do understand him (though Maecenas insists they don't speak Latin). Posca is panicking because he and Maecenas are planning to nick a pile of gold from Antony and Octavian, presumably to keep Jocasta in jangly jewellery.

The Godfather, Dodgy and The Third Man seem to be in charge of transporting said gold and The Third Man's nose is out of joint because he is third in their own little triumvirate (which surely has been obvious to him for a long time and isn't likely to change because he sulks). Gaia brings Eirene poisoned tea, which the camera lingers on for a sufficiently long time that we have no doubt what's in it. Sure enough, the next scene is poor Eirene's death scene (with some random nudity from Dodgy, because they happen to be in bed at the time). Dodgy repeatedly insists she's not dying, all evidence (i.e. enormous amounts of blood) to the contrary. Dodgy's eulogy for her is rather sweet, though he still doesn't exactly know where his wife came from, which is a bit pathetic. Her funeral is attended only by Dodgy and the Godfather, which seems a shame, you'd think at least the Godfather's sulky children would come.

Because Dodgy was at his wife's funeral, The Third Man was given the job of transporting the gold, and now he's the one who's been seriously injured by a gang of thieves who've stolen it. The Godfather reassures Octavian that he's thoroughly investigating, but as he predicted, gets in trouble for not using Dodgy. Maecenas tries to imply this is where the weak link is, which given Dodgy had a pretty sound excuse is a bit desperate. Everyone needles and suspects everyone else, except Lepidus, who's convinced it was Gauls. Maecenas, it turns out, was not involved, and is convinced Posca and Antony have double-crossed him.

The Godfather goes to visit the other, evil Don to ask if he knows anything about the theft. You can tell he and Creepy Guy (the one seducing Sulky Eldest Daughter) get serious when the Godfather leaves because they shove their women out of the way so they can concentrate. Evil Don, who has in fact got the triumvirate's gold, has decided it's time to get rid of the Godfather once and for all and calls a selection of other mafia-types to work with him to that end.

Maecenas needles Octavian about Antony, still annoyed about the money. To get rid of Antony, he tells Octavian about the general lack of respect for the institution of marriage among his family. Octavian, strangely innocent as he is in personal matters (that won't change) is horrified and calls all four naughty children to dinner so he can tell them off. Aside from the five of them, only Livia and Maecenas are present.

In the lead-up to the exciting dinner, Octavian and Livia have a cosy little chat about how their sex life will work once they're married. It involves S&M. Livia seems quite happy with this arrangement. (There's actually something weirdly sweet about Octavian's anxiety to reassure her he won't be hurting her because he's mad at her).

The following scene is pretty much the last time many of the major characters are gathered in one room. It is perhaps worth mentioning at this point that the group we are looking at comprise the grandfather, two great-grandfathers, two great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmother (twice over) of the Emperor Caligula. That is what these people's ultimate legacy will be. I just wanted to mention that.

Octavian declares that he is master of the family and proceeds to lay down the law. Octavia, Antony and Atia are pretty cross, but Agrippa 'fesses up to everything and apologises, trying to protect Octavia. Octavian declares that he'll lock up his mother and sister so they can't misbehave (given what he later did to his daughter and grand-daughter, they're getting off lightly by being allowed to stay in the city). He orders Antony to leave Rome all otgether, on pain of him telling everyone Antony's wife has been cheating on him with 'a pleb on my staff'. Octavia tells Livia she's marrying a monster and she and Atia are sent home with Maecenas. Atia tells Maecenas he's not done Octavian a favour by ratting them out. Agrippa gets to stay because Octavian needs him and his disappearance would cause a scandal. Octavian and Livia are left to thenselves and their stuffed songbirds. Livia looks quite smug - she's clearly aware that he's just permanently alienated his entire family and all his friends execpt Maecenas, leaving her to be his cloest confidante.

The most interesting thing about this alteration to history - done for time, partly - is that it shifts the blame for Antony's leaving Rome from Antony to Octavian. Here, Octavian kicks Antony out - right into the arms of Cleopatra. He seems to be trying to provoke war by doing so, which is an interesting change from the sources, which imply that Antony left because he wanted to, making his intentions even clearer by refusing to take Octavia with him (she had just patched up a quarrel between him and Octavian, that being more or less her job). Of course, these sources were all written during the reign of, and presumably with the blessing of, Augustus/Octavian, but that's the record we have. The fact that Rome represents a scenario that's the exact opposite - Octavian forcing Antony's hand by kicking him out rather than simply waiting for him to leave - is quite interesting and perhaps, even, may be closer to the truth - if not, it's certainly plausible.

The Godfather, not being stupid, has reaslied it was Evil Don who stole the gold, and Dodgy suspects The Third Man betrayed them to him, so he goes off to deal with the problem in his own special way. But just as things are looking bad for The Third Man, the Godfather finds one of the little dolls Creepy Guy has been giving his daughter and realises who the actual traitor was. They have a confrontation and she finally tells him she hates him for killing their mother, cursing them and abanding them to be enslaved. Then she pulls a knife on him and says she won't go as easily as Niobe, at which point the Godfather finally tells her outright that no, he didn't kill thier mother. He thinks about killing her, but the other children are watching, and he lets her go.

Antony tries to go and say goodbye to his lover/mother-in-law but the house is under guard. So he yells, which we know from the previous episode is pretty effective. Atia comes to the doorway so they can see but not touch each other. It's genuinely sad, and for once Antony seems as upset about the whole business as she is. He promises to send for her when the time comes and seems to honestly mean it. He kisses her hand (the guards aren't that fussy) and she goes inside, unaware that this is the last time they'll see each other alive.

Posca is helping Antony burn incriminating documents when the Godfather turns up. He tells him Dodgy will retrieve the gold and begs to be taken to Alexandria because he can't stay in Rome. Antony, who I can only assume has some kind of random man-crush on him, says yes as long as he won't turn to drink (as Stoic types often do when disappointed in life, apparently). The Godfather says goodbye to Dodgy but decides not to see his children. He asks Dodgy to tell them he tried (the running away as soon as things get bad does not make this a convincing argument).

Atia has snuck Agrippa into the kitchen to see Octavia, which is really sweet of her. The way Atia and Octavia get closer throughout season 2 is really nice. It all goes horribly wrong, though, when Agrippa explains that he isn't going to run away with her and, in fact, he's come to break up with her because he honestly believes Octavian has the right to do what he wants with all of them. It's heart-breaking to see the tragic demise of his and Octavia's relationship but it does fit rather nicely with what's known of Agrippa (ignoring the fact he never historically had an affair with Octavia). Agrippa was the only one of Octavian's friends who stayed that way until his (Agrippa's) death, the only one after Antony allowed to marry into Octavian's family, his co-consul several times and it was Agrippa he gave his ring to when he thought he was dying in 23 BC. Much as Agrippa seems like a bit of a wet sop at times, not only is he a brilliant general, he is the one Octavian really trusts, and this scene provides a reason, within Rome's version of events, for that to be the case.

Octavia also mentions that she's pregnant, but doesn't care who the father is becasue 'niether man is worth a brass obol.' Given that the family tree is quite incestuous enough already, we can only hope it's Antony.

Dodgy and The Third Man lead an all-out war against Evil Don and the others (Gaia fights along with them, which is the only sympathetic thing she does throughout the series). Our guys win, obviously. The death by axe of Creepy Guy is especially satisfying.

Meanwhile, in Alexandria, Antony enters Cleopatra's palace with due pomp and circumstance (and newly energised version of the theme tune) and, while clearly underessing each other with their eyes, they greet each other with the single words; 'Antony.' 'Cleopatra'. It's astonisingly effective, playing on one of the few things the writers can rely on their audience probably already knowing and making the most of the little runtime the show has left by allowing our imaginations to fill in what the series doesn't have time for - something that they will rely on even more in the following episode, when we'll be skipping ahead by five years.

Impressively for an episode with such a difficult job to do, this is also a really good bit of television. Perhaps the need to compress everything actually had some good side-effects, as the series focuses only the most important storylines and produces a full and fast-paced hour. The Godfather and Dodgy continue to Forrest Gump their way through history - here, they are indirectly responsible for the end of what's left of the Roman Republic, just as predicted back in episode 2 of season 1. Actually, Gaia is. Because she poisoned Eirene, Dodgy wasn't guarding the gold and Evil Don was able to steal it. Because Evil Don stole the gold, Maecenas, thinking it was Antony, ratted Anotny and the others out to Octavian. Because of this, out of a combination of hurt pride and general power-madness, Octavian kicked Antony out of Rome and sent him to Alexandria, where he joined forces with Cleopatra against Octavian. I knew I didn't like Gaia.

Quite a lot of European history is, essentially, these three's fault

As well as doing a decent job pulling all the threads into place, this episode had some really nice bits of quotable dialogue in it:

Octavian: You have many talents, Agrippa. Seduction is not one of them.

Agrippa: I would go with you to Hades - to Britain, even!

The town crier reads out a fantastic advert for slaves 'to suit all budgets' at one point.

And quoted again, just because it's so brilliantly, economically effective:
Cleopatra: Antony.
Antony: Cleopatra.

All Rome reviews


  1. If you want a quick "Reader's Digest" History of Rome, sung, go see this:

    There are also videos on Cleopatra, who had a lot to do with Rome, and Julius Caesar, who apparently ran the place for a few years!

  2. You would think that if the network were going to commit to backing this sort of project that they'd be courteous enough to let it play out properly.

  3. You would, wouldn't you?! Even a shortened season 3 would have been good - 3 or 4 episodes could have been enough to let this play out a bit more naturally

  4. And now HBO/BBC are planing a news series based upon the novels I, Claudius and Claudius The God.

    Let's hops that this time "They" don't get cold feet halfway through and cancel the series.

  5. I wonder how long it'll run? The original seemed fine at 13 episodes...

  6. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information, official or otherwise, about the new series. This article (link below) has some info on the tortured history of the property before it landed at HBO. (Some of the comments are pretty amusing too.)

    As I remember it, the original concept of Rome was to take they story up to the death of Christ, which of course would have put it into I, Claudius territory. I now wonder if HBO nixed Rome not only because of the production costs but also to avoid cannibalizing a property they were fighting hard to obtain.

    That being said, I think HBO has a tough row to hoe when it comes to beating the original series. Yes, that budget was limited and required some very creative compromises in terms of sets, locations, costumes, etc. However, what it may have lacked in production value it more than made up for in terms of story and performance. The roster of acting talent was simply incredible and will be tough to equal let alone surpass.


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