Rome & The Rise of the Historical Soap Opera, Part I

The title for this post is at least a little misleading. The HBO/BBC television series Rome was not the first television series to trade on the more lurid aspects of history for entertainment purposes. The BBC, with series like Elizabeth R and I, Claudius, has long been in the business of making history entertaining.  But there does seem to have been a run on historically based series on cable channels in the last ten years or so.  Besides Rome, there was the previously reviewed Tudors, The Borgias, a Viking show called, rather unimaginatively, The Vikings, a completely wretched attempt at a king Arthur retelling called Camelot, a series set in the Wars of the Roses called The White Queen, based on the novels of Phillipa Gregory, and, of course, Downton Abbey.  You might even be able to plausibly insert Game of Thrones into this mix, fantasy though it is, as it is still inspired by a vision of medieval life.  And that is just on the European/Canadian side of things.  In the US, there has been Deadwood (a Western), as well as Boardwalk Empire (a gangster show, set in 1920s Atlantic City).  One might also count the multi-episode mini-series base on Ken Follet’s novels, Pillars of the Earth (2010) and World Without End (2012) in this mix.  In short, history has been selling quite well in the television world.

I say that tongue in cheek, mind you; I have not seen most of these, but sufficed to say, their quality varies, in terms of their presentation of the history involved.  But I don’t think I am remiss in saying that what initially set off this run on what are essentially historically based soap operas, was started by Rome.  Its success in 2005-2007 seemed to have spawned The Tudors and its ilk.  And for my money, Rome is not only the most historically accurate of these soap operas, it is also the most compelling television show I have ever watched.   In this post and its sequel, will go over what made it so compelling to me, both historically and dramatically speaking.  Because of the length of what I’m about to say, I will talk about those parts in Rome that didn’t work as well as they might have in this first part, and the second post will delve into what the series did well. Both, however, are instructive as to what makes a successful historical drama both entertaining and authentic.


Roma Aeterna

If you have never seen the show, it is set in the late republican period, near the end of Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, about the year 52 BC (or BCE, if you prefer).  The show follows the trials and tribulations of two soldiers–Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo–who fight in Caesar’s legions, and the backbone of the show is their friendship with all of its ups and downs, throughout the major events of the last years of the republic, ending the with the ascension of Octavian as emperor (or princeps, to be more precise).

Rome has been a favorite subject of filmmakers since the inception of that art form, and there have been many notable attempts to portray that most hallowed of ancient civilizations on the big screen.  Among the best that come to mind are Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and the film The Last Days of Rome; Rome also finds itself something of a focus in Ben Hur, as well as the, to my mind at least, less successful Antony and Cleopatra.  The most recent effort readers are likely to be familiar with is Gladiator, from our old friend Ridley Scott, which was a delightful film with delightful performances set in a most distorted version of Roman history.  The man is most consistent in this regard.  (And of course, before Hollywood was ever conceived, Shakespeare had given us several wonderful evocations of Roma Aeterna, many of which have been turned into fine films.  Julius Caesar is the best of these, the 1950s version starring James Mason, Sir John Gielgud and Marlin Brando.)

This obsession with Rome is not surprising; the history of the Roman state and its peoples is dramatic both in its rise to power and its fall, and makes for a rather ready made story for artists and filmmakers to work with.  No doubt, many more such films are sure to be made in the future, which is something that makes me rather glad, the spotty record of Hollywood in this regard notwithstanding.  One can never get enough of Rome on film, in my humble estimation.


Why Rome is Great:  A Preliminary Word

I felt compelled to do this in my review of The Tudors, and I think I have to do it in this context as well.  Let me be clear about what I am saying when I say Rome is the best historical depiction on film, feature or series, that I have ever seen.  I am not saying the series was a replacement for history, or that it is equivalent to a history of the period it depicts.  Every film or television show has to make a trade-off at some point between historical accuracy and dramatic structure.  Some aspects of the historical record will inevitably be downplayed, left out, exaggerated, distorted, or twisted to suit the narrative that the filmmakers have chosen to pursue. A historian cannot do this, as it would violate the basic tenets of his profession; a filmmaker must do this, or else he will violate the basic tenets of his profession.  Whereas in the one case, historical truth, no matter how boring undramatic it may be is the goal, in the other it is a dramatic truth is what is pursued (i.e., that which will bring catharsis to the audience).  As the saying goes, there is only one rule in movie making:  don’t be boring.  Once someone understands this, and accepts the limitation of the art form, then they can enjoy historical films without having to writhe with indignation at every historical howler that comes up.  (If you can’t do this, these probably means you have been to graduate school and likely a history major.  My condolences to you.)

What I am saying is that the makers of Rome balanced these two goals-historical accuracy and dramatic engagement-better than anything I’ve ever seen on screen, be it a feature or a series.  I will follow the same basic format as in my review of the Tudors, examining the Bad, the Ugly, and the good in their turn.


The Bad:  Pretty Sure Rome Invented a New Category of Pornography

That is to say, somewhere in between hard and soft core porn.  And I mean this quite literally:  if you can’t handle repeated scenes of raunchy sex (in virtually every single episode), occasionally full nude shots (male and female) you probably won’t make it through Rome.  I found myself skipping over those scenes as time went by, and perhaps that is a way that one could watch the series if that sort of thing mortally offends you.  And though I will defend the show’s graphic depictions of sexuality (for historical reasons), I do think they did not have to go as far as they did in order to make the show work.  But this was a cable TV venture, so it’s not like it was unexpected, nor was it totally out of line with the story they wanted to tell.

And that story was partly about the decadence of Rome toward the end of the republic.  The show’s creators rather deftly linked the sexual outrages committed by the show’s major characters (Marc Antony, Octavian, etc.) to the political outrages they committed as well.  In that sense, the whole arc of the show represented an almost traditionally Roman morality tale about the decline of traditional Roman virtues, despite the lurid depiction of it throughout the series.  From what I know of Roman history, they probably overdid it a bit, since to my recollection the worst sexual and moral excesses of the ruling classes occurred during the Imperial period, but still, the kernel of truth makes the extremity of the series defensible (to a point, anyway).  There is also another good reason for this, which I will wait to explain, since it relates to something that the show’s creators did quite well.

Aside from the sexual extremities, there are plenty of exaggerations and unlikely scenarios peppered throughout the series.  Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo fall into every single major event in the late republic, which is historically absurd, though it was wonderful TV.   Also, the shows producers made a point of playing up the influence of women in the show, which though it is true women always had influence behind the scenes, even in patriarchal Rome, they probably played up a bit too much to be historically accurate.   To give an example, Attia, the mother of Octavian, is portrayed as having practically made him into the man who became emperor.  In the show’s last episode, his sister Octavia says on the day of Octavian’s triumph that this day was “as much hers as his,” which is historically preposterous.  I understand the need to do this (the show was, despite its quality, still a soap opera) but there was just a bit too much “girl power” in the series for my taste.

And finally, certain aspects of ancient Roman society tended to get elided for various reasons.  The most glaring of these is the way that family obligations were sometimes depicted:  the show points out, rightly, that marriage was primarily a public not private (personal) bond in the ancient world, at least for the upper classes.   But then Marc Antony is depicted as a sort of perpetual playboy, who only marries Octavia for political reasons in the series, but is otherwise portrayed much like a 21st century bachelor living the high life.  In fact, Marc Antony was married something like three times before he wed Octavia.  Nor could he have avoided it:  being a member of the aristocracy meant having to produce heirs.  The sense of divide between public and private of ancient peoples differs from our own, obviously, and sometimes that difference is difficult to depict and tell a great story on top of it.  But then this was, to my recollection, the only major instance of such an erasure in the series, though there may have been others.

There were other, minor offenses against historical accuracy.  The worst of these, which, for the purposes of not spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I won’t describe in detail, involves the parentage of Caesarion, the love child of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.  There are likely others which I have forgotten, but they in no way affect the overall historical quality of the show, which was on the whole excellent.


The Ugly:   Damn Furraners!

There was in Rome precious little of what I call “on the nose” history; that is, dialogue written solely for the purpose of conveying historical information to the audience, for context.  The only example I can think of is when, in the second season, Marc Antony accuses Octavian of attempting to aggrandize himself by having Julius Caesar posthumously proclaimed a god, which in fact he did, and which I am sure most of the people watching the show when it was broadcast probably did not know.  Early in the first episode, a young Octavian explains the growing rift between Caesar and Pompey to Pullo and Vorenus after a bloody fight; in the last episode, Vorenus has to explain to Cleopatra why Octavian is not going to keep his promises to her, something I’m pretty sure she didn’t need explained for her.  But these were quite rare, and generally didn’t stick out that much.  Part of the reason for this is the quality of the writing, but also the nature of the material the writers were working with.  Modern audiences don’t need a great deal of background to understand the consequences of civil war, even if it occurred in a vastly different society, and so there is less need for greater context than, say, for explaining why sola fide is a cause for violent persecution during the Reformation.

Perhaps the only other “ugly” element in an otherwise beautifully constructed series is something I noticed only after watching the behind the scenes DVD that came with the first season boxed set, and listening to the commentary on some of the episodes provided by the producers of the series.   That is the running theme of Roman xenophobia throughout the film.  In several rather memorable scenes, the xenophobia of plebeian Romans is portrayed with a gusto which is…interesting, to say the least.  The best example of this is in the second season when, after the death of Julius Caesar, the collegia (gangs) who more or less run the city, are fighting each other over territory.   One of the main characters calls for a truce, and a meeting of all the gangs.   This is announced via the priest of the goddess Concord, who goes through the streets announcing a halt to the violence.  Just then, three gang members stand around and question what is going on, two of whom are Roman and a third a foreigner with an obvious accent.  Their dialogue something like this:

Gang #1:  What the fuck’s all this then?

Gang #2:  Don’t know.

Foreigner:  Let’s ask the priest then, he’ll know.

Gang #1:  You can’t talk to a priest of Concord.

Foreigner:  Why not?

Gang #1:  Because you can’t you fuckin’ savage.  (to Gang #2).  Foreigners.  (Gang #2 nods his head knowingly)

The little scene depicts perfectly the native’s contempt for foreigners who aren’t aware of their customs, even when they are not able to give them any rational explanation.  But it also suggests something else.  The first gang member is a minor character, Memio, who speaks with a strong cockney accent through his time in the series.   Most of the cast in the film is either English, Scottish, or Italian, but I noticed while watching the behind the scenes commentary that some of the shows producers spoke with what sounded like working class English accents.  My point is that there was some definite transference going on between working class English mannerisms and cultural ideals onto the plebeian class of Rome in the show.   For the most part, I thought this was a brilliant stroke, and some of the scenes, like the one depicted above, are quite funny in a way, and the Romans were most certainly xenophobic.  However, the makers of the series almost seemed a bit too much enthused about those scenes, and one could call that an “ugly” part of the series, though I would not myself.

That, for the most part, describes what I thought could have been improved or what was slightly off about the show.  In our next installment, I will discuss what Rome and its producers got right-which turns out, is quite a bit.

~ by Alypius on January 8, 2014.

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