Imperium: Augustus (dir. Roger Young, 2003)

I'll be away at a conference for the rest of this week, at which Penelope Goodman is speaking on this 2-part 2003 made-for-TV movie about the life of Augustus, and the DVD was cheap, so I thought I'd watch it.

There's no way to beat about the bush here: it's not good. The writing is bad, the music is bad, the costumes are bad, the CGI and matte paintings are bad, the ADR which presumably replaces several actors' Italian accents with roughly English ones is especially bad and even the acting is bad, which is surprising, as Peter O'Toole, playing Augustus, is usually excellent. The Lion in Winter, this ain't. It's not even up to Troy's level.

I'm not even going to start on the historical inaccuracies here. Let's just say this re-imagines Caesar and Augustus as great defenders of the people fighting vaguely referenced 'nobles' and leave it at that. I do feel the need to point out that Augustus was not of excessively 'humble birth', as he was part of one of the most ancient families in Rome through his mother. And Cicero is lumped in with 'the nobles' despite the fact one of his defining features is that he wasn't noble. And Cicero appears to be part of the conspiracy against Caesar, which he equally famously wasn't. And... OK, I'll stop now.

The open hostility between Livia and Augustus is very odd. Livia's characterisation is quite interesting and she is much less the cut-and-dried villainess than usual - indeed, it is implied she may be largely innocent. She certainly comes under suspicion of poisoning people though, and without Robert Graves' conceit, that Augustus simply had a gigantic blind spot where Livia was concerned, or Rome's interpretation, that they're both evil incarnate but bound by mutual desire, their relationship makes no sense. Augustus was descended from the Julians twice over (biologically through his mother and by adoption through Caesar) so although Livia was usefully aristocratic, he didn't need to be married to her for that reason. They had no children together and divorce was common amongst the Roman aristocracy, especially in pursuit of an heir, so if they were that hostile to each other, they wouldn't have stayed married.

The almost entirely terrible dialogue did include the odd gem, such as:
Julia: Did you want me to spin the wool for my own dresses like I did when I was a little girl?
Augustus: Perhaps with slightly more wool.
And Augustus carefully avoids a split infinitive, as one is compelled to when speaking Latin, when he announces his intention 'formally to denounce' Julia. O'Toole is no BLESSED in the shouting department though, not any more.

I'm not even going to think about Russell Barr's portrayal of Maecenas. I've seen schoolboys play pantomime dames with more subtlety.

Cleopatra's death scene, which could rival vampire shows for linking sex and death and features what looks more like a cobra than anything else to me, is also better left with the less said the better.

Part 2 is a slight improvement on Part 1, as the sub-plots concerning Julia's unhappy political marriage to Tiberius and the possibility that Livia is poisoning everybody kick in, plus a bit of Antony and Cleopatra, always at least mildly entertaining. It also features a rather fun scene involving Augustus smashing lots of glasses and saving a slave from a flogging, which I have a vague notion may have some roots in an actual historical incident when Augustus ordered a friend not to kill a slave who'd broken something, though I can't remember the details. An assassination attempt on Augustus features the two most incompetent would-be assassins in history but does have the advantage of providing a thoroughly satisfying explanation for Julia's banishment and Augustus' adoption of Tiberius.

On the other hand, Part 2 contains the most bizarre scene of all in which, after nearly 100 years of civil war, a (really rather small) bunch of Roman soldiers suddenly twig that civil war means offing your friends and relatives and refuse to do it. What did they think they'd all been doing for the previous several decades?

Oh, and there's a random bit of sneaky Christianising at the end as well - 'if the gods have sent someone to save the world, I am not that man' says Augustus, and then the film finishes with a reminder that Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus. All this achieves is to make it really seem like we've slipped back in time to the 1960s, when this sort of thing was quite common in Roman dramas. It certainly doesn't belong in a drama about a man who died when Jesus was 14(ish).

Overall though, this is notable largely for being the most postive and friendly account of the life of Augustus since he wrote his own autobiography. He did it all for Rome, it's all Mark Antony's/Cleopatra's/Livia's/Tiberius's fault, Augustus just wants peace and love and fluffy bunnies. Really, truly, honestly guv. And if you'll believe that, you'll believe anything.


  1. I agree that Maecenas and Cleopatra are a bit awful, and the Christian stuff was indeed very tacked on (against the original script-writer's wishes - I'll explain more about that at the conference, though I won't have time to go into it in full detail in my paper). But my basic argument about it will be that the nature of the sources on Augustus make it very difficult indeed to tell his story at all in a way that is palatable to modern audiences, while still being dramatically satisfying. Given that, I think this production tackles the issue pretty successfully. After all, the bumbling Augustus portrayed in 'I Claudius', blind to the devious machinations of his family, is hardly 'accurate', either.

    This production also has some quite clever structuring and uses of space - which again I'm happy to expand on in more detail when I see you at the conference, but won't be able to do full justice to in my paper. And I rather like the way it defines itself against 'I Claudius' by mis-directing us into *thinking* Livia may be poisoning Gaius and Lucius, and then revealing that she isn't.

    Incidentally, the glass-smashing incident is based on a story which originally involved Vedius Pollio and his lampreys (see Seneca the Younger, On Anger 3.40 and Dio 52.23.2–4). And the scene with the soldiers recognising each other's brothers, fathers etc at Brundisium is strongly reminiscent of some scenes from Lucan on the civil wars between Pompey and Caesar, as well as the fact that Antony and Octavian's troops at Brundisium (allegedly) *did* refuse to fight one another. So it may be presented a little hokily, but it isn't totally off the wall.

  2. That scene did make me think of Lucan, except that in Lucan they kill each other anyway! I thought there must be some kind of basis to it but didn't have time to track it down - the execution didn't do it any favours I'm afraid!

    I did like the misdirection with Livia and I agree that Augustus is a tricky character to pull off, but I'm afraid I prefer Graves' solution (which was based on Syme, I think) - not because it's any more historically accurate, as I'm sure it isn't, but just because I find it more plausible! My favourite interpretation of all is the Rome version, where Octavian/Augustus is a magnificent chessmaster.

    The Pollio incident was maybe what I was thinking of - I knew it reminded me of something!

  3. The 'Rome' approach does work well, but the problem is that if you portray Octavian as a ruthless manipulator in that way, it's difficult to carry the story forward plausibly into his time as Augustus, when all the sources tell us that people accepted him as a ruler, often with great enthusiasm. You could show him still being essentially power-hungry, and duping everyone around him into thinking he's wonderful. But the problem is, who do you play him off against? And when does he get his come-uppance for it all? Those elements just aren't there for the historical Augustus - which is the basis of the problem.

  4. This is totally off-topic, but have you read Roma and Empire by Steven Saylor yet? I just did and it's funny because all through the books I thought the Pinarii and the Potitii were fictional, and it turns out they were real!

    This movie sounds like one I'll avoid.

  5. No, I haven't yet, though they're on my list!

  6. @weavingsandunpickings How about, although people do accept his rule, Augustus has been manipulating people for so long he's simply unable to stop doing so? He's basically fighting against himself, building members of the family up and then swatting them. He's good at it, so can deflect suspicion onto Livia or Tiberius while pretending to be this genial old cove with a soft spot for the horrendous harridan he's married to. The come-uppance post-Varius is that he finds the game wasn't worth the candle.

    Now all I need is scriptwriters and a budget.....

  7. @RWMG I like it, except for Livia being a harridan. She'd gotta be a magnificant manipulative bitch at the least!

  8. Your recap was more enjoyable than the actual movie Juliette! I watched this not long after finishing HBOs Rome and felt it just didn't register as strongly as Simon Woods' performance. Young Octavian(us) surely had some charisma about him, and the actor that plays this role in Imperium simply didn't have it to the same degree as Woods.

    You should definitely track down the iteration of Imperium dedicated to Nero, called Nerone in many versions. It notably features John Simm as Caligula.

    Kind Regards

  9. Thanks! :) And I will get hold of the Nero installment at some point, John Simm is fabulous! Shame he has to get killed off early on though!


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