Rome & the Rise of the Historical Soap Opera, Part II

In the first post in this series, I outlined what was bad and ugly about the television series Rome.  In this post, I will complete the circle by describing what was good about the series.


The Good, Part 1:  Historical Rome

Most films and series that have depicted ancient Rome have focused primarily on the great political actors of their respective ages:  Julius Caesar, Pompey, Caesar Augustus, later emperors such as Nero, Tiberius, Claudius or Marcus Aurelius.  Such films almost never focus on the lower orders, precisely because we don’t have nearly as much evidence as to what they were like, when compared with the senatorial and imperial classes.  And this is precisely where Rome excelled, as it focused on the lower orders of Roman society as no series or film had before it, and with magnificent results.

The story itself focuses on two soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, who appear in Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Caesar praising the two soldiers who come to blows with each other.  From this, the shows producers spun a story in which their lives intersect with those of Caesar, Marc Antony, Pompey, Cicero, etc.  The effect is to highlight the differences between the patrician and plebeian orders in ancient Rome.  Now, most of the written evidence for what life was like in ancient Rome was penned by people of the upper classes, which is a problem for the study of virtually all ancient societies, but the archeological record can reveal many things about the life of ordinary people in Rome, and this comes out in the series, particularly in the visual elements of the city.  For example, the wooden tenements that many lived in, as well as their crowded and cramped nature, is portrayed quiet vividly in the series, especially in the second season, where much of the series takes place in the city.  The impact of civil war, the exigencies that it would impose on characters such as soldiers like Vorenus and Pullo is done with great care, and realism.  (Again, I think the drawing on modern working class ethos that seems to characterize the series was very helpful here, in an artistic sense, but also as a way of relating the travails of the lower orders of ancient Rome to a modern audience.)  One gets a good sense of both the pageantry, the color of ancient Rome, but also its squalor; most films, series tend to portray ancient Rome as a sort of white marble and dust ghost town, influenced too much by Romantic and Classical art, I suppose.  The sets in Rome, which were filmed in studios in modern Rome, convey the living vitality of the city excellently.

But aside from the visuals, probably the most impressive thing about Rome is the way it treats of religion in ancient Rome.  I have said before that the most important thing about an historical film, besides the need to have it look authentic, is that it not violate the beliefs of the people that it is meant to depict, does not put words or ideas in the mouths of characters that would not have been there.  In most treatments of ancient Rome, I have found the religious aspect to be treated in basically two ways:  skeptically, or in the case of I, Claudius and Gladiator, touched over with a veneer of modern “spirituality,” goddess worship in the case of Robert Graves and a sort of folk-religious belief in an after life for the agnostic Ridley Scott.   Now, these latter two approaches are not totally incorrect; elements of skepticism were rife of course in ancient Rome, and that vague, folk belief in an afterlife was present.  But no movie or series I have ever seen has actually tried to capture what “religion” amounted to for Romans more than Rome.  For example, early in the series, the character Atia, the mother of Octavius, the future emperor, goes through a ritual associated with the goddess Cybele, in which a live bull is sacrificed and Atia bathes in its blood. This might seem gross to a modern audience (and its not entirely clear this was the way such a sacrificed was performed), but that’s the point:  the series did an excellent job of presenting this in the raw to the audience, all the while maintaining the narrative energy of the story, precisely by hyper-charging those more fantastic elements in sources of the period.

Part of the reason the producers did this, besides wanting to play up these elements for the sake of dramatic effect, was a self-conscious effort on the part of those who made the series to emphasize the difference between the morality of the classical world and that of Christianity.  This is made clear in the extra features on the boxed set of season one, in which the historical consultant for the film made this clear, and the actors in interviews also said they wished to play this up as well.  This difference between Roman (and Greek) morality and that of Christianity can be overdone, of course, and many early Christian thinkers admired pagan moralists such as Seneca and other stoic philosophers, but on the whole modern scholarship tends to emphasize those differences-above all those regarding sexuality-which separate the two, and I think one can say that overall the picture the series presents, while over the top, is accurate in its essentials.  And this is, as far as a non-expert in Roman history can tell, representative of the series as a whole.


The Good, Part 2:  Of Characters and Performances

One of the better aspects of the show-both as a matter of drama and history-is the way many of the historical figures in the show were portrayed.  One of my favorites was the portrayal of Cicero by David Bamber, who brought out all of the aspects of Cicero that readers of his works are familiar with:  his fussy self-regard, his vanity, his wit, and above all his undying devotion to the old republic, which the social climber Cicero-the series makes clear he was not born in the Senatorial class-spent so much of his life defending.  On the other hand, Ciaran Hinds, a veteran character actor, portrayed Julius Caesar as the to-the-manor-born senator who wishes to be a king in a society that abhors the very idea of kingship, and dies in pursuit of it.  Cold, domineering, protective of his patrician dignity but capable of appealing to the masses (and manipulating them), Hinds’ Caesar is every bit the figure one would expect if you have read, say, Plutarch’s biography of him.   Despite some notable departures, noted above, for the most part the characters feel both realistic in terms of the world the series depicts, but also historically authentic-no mean feat, to say the least.

The best example of this, however, is the character of Marc Antony, as portrayed by James Purefoy, who was one of the few characters who made an appearance in every single episode of the show, and at least in my view, most emblematic of the violent energy which seemed to characterize both Rome as a show but also Rome as an historical reality.  One of the best aspects of the show, in my estimation, was the relationship between Antony and Vorenus, (seconded by Pullo’s friendship with Octavian).  Antony, according to Plutarch, was beloved by both the common people of Rome but also by his soldiers, who appreciated his earthy, sometimes crude nature.  Plutarch especially noted his ability to motivate his men, and this quality was portrayed beautifully in this scene from the second season, in which Antony is called by Pullo to bring Vorenus out of his torpor following the death of his family, for which he blames himself (as well as the death of Caesar, as he was involved with Caesar intimately in the series.)  Now, earlier in the first season, Vorenus had left the legions only to beg Antony to be allowed to return, and swore a personal oath of loyalty to Antony as the price of admission; Vorenus, if you haven’t seen the series, was the uptight, conservative part of the duo formed with Pullo, and he took oaths deadly seriously, something Antony, as portrayed in the series uses to rouse him out of his lethargy.  Watch, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:

I found the dynamic between Vorenus and Antony (and Pullo and Octavian) to be utterly fascinating, given the power differences between them, and the way their relationship changes over the course of the series, is one of the highlights of watching Rome, as are the performances by Kevin McKidd, Purefoy, and the other skilled character actors in the show.  Perhaps one could criticize the portrayal of Octavian somewhat; no doubt, he was a bloodthirsty and ruthless person, which they do quite well in depicting, but Octavian had a better personal touch with the masses than the series gives him credit for.  Octavian was not from an aristocratic family, and Suetonius records that at the end of his life he seemed to think of his reign as something of a performance for the masses, and we have other evidence that he possessed something more of a popular touch than the creators of Rome allowed for.  Perhaps they minimized this in order to heighten the contrast with Antony, who was also known for this.  In any case, it doesn’t alter the fact that most of the historical personalities matched up pretty well with what can be gleaned from ancient writers like Plutarch and Cicero.


The Good, Part 3:  Parallel Lines & Escalations

The first season of Rome was the most exciting, addictive season of television I have ever watched.  Ever.  For comparison’s sake, I am going through the entirety of the show Breaking Bad at the moment, and while I think it superb and a better show over all, nothing, and I mean nothing, can match the excitement for me of the first season of Rome.  I watched the show after it had already gone off the air, buying the first season as a boxed set.  Once started on the series, I couldn’t stop.  Each episode is about fifty minutes long, and I was watching nearly four episodes a night, so much so that I could barely get any of my work done (this was when I was still in graduate school).

Part of the great thrill of watching the series was the way Rome seem to escalate the level of conflict from episode to episode, especially in season 1.  My complaints about the quasi-pornographic nature of much the show are mitigated by the marvelous use they made of all the sexual depravity they managed to portray on screen.  That is, rather than mere titillation, each episode seemed to up the stakes for the main characters in the show, episode by episode.  For example, for political reasons, Attia, the mother of Octavian, manages to break up Caesar from his lover, Servilia, the mother of Brutus (yes, the one who eventually kills him).  As revenge, Servilia seduces and beds Attia’s daughter Octavia, and then manages to get Octavia to ply Octavian for information by seducing him!  Sufficed to say, this is all made up, as far as I am aware, but it had the effect of personalizing the conflicts in the story, as sexual partners on both sides of the conflict between Caesar and those who would retain the old republic.  And so as the first season progressed, there was a perfect parallel between the escalating acts of sexual depravity and the escalating acts of political violence, culminating with the assassination of Julius Caesar in the final episode of the first season.  And all of this built around the personal stories of Pullo and Vorenus, whose lives intertwine almost perfectly with the larger political events the show depicts.  It was a virtuoso performance, on so many levels.

The second season was splendid in this regard as well, as if followed the arc of the two main historical figures to emerge as powerful rivals after the assassination of Julius Caesar:  Mark Antony and Octavian.  This too was fruitful, dramatically speaking, since Vorenus was allied with Antony, and Pullo with Octavian, the two major plot lines were linked directly, as in the first season.  But the show really couldn’t sustain the intensity of the first season, for a variety of reasons.  Partly, this had to do with the fact that one of the major sources of tension for Vorenus was removed at the end of the first season, that is his wife.  Much of Vorenus’ arc in the second season surrounded his family, and which was quite good, but I thought there was a bit of a lull after the first few episodes of season two, when compared with the first season.  This is partly because the political story has already shifted:  by first few episodes of season two, Brutus and Cassius have been defeated, and the republic is dead, and it is only a matter of deciding which person, Antony or Octavian, will be the one left standing.  That is, Rome is already imperial in its ethos, and so there is not the same capacity for escalation from the republican to imperial Rome that there was in season 1.  (The added spice of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra–to which the series’ producers gave a rather nice, almost post-modern sheen gloss–somewhat made up for this.) But the story of Vorenus and Pullo was still gripping as the series came full circle, and reinforced the fact that theirs was the central story in the whole show.


Conclusion:  A Good Man is Hard to Find

I’m not sure how well I have described the elements that made Rome so very excellent as a TV series, but these are the main ones I can recall from memory.  And though some of them are peculiar to the story Rome wanted to tell, many of these elements demonstrate how filmmakers can tell an exciting, dramatic story, which is their main responsibility, while at the same time also reaching a fair level of historical authenticity in their work.  Again, the key word here is authenticity, as opposed to accuracy.  In general, unless it has to do with visual accuracy, storytellers, writers of fiction, filmmakers, should always choose authenticity over factual accuracy if they are forced to choose, in order to fulfill the demands of their craft.  Rome is a wonderful example of how filmmakers, if they take the care to do so, can accomplish this.

Finally, I just wanted to end with a bit of speculation about the themes in the series.  A few curious elements caught my attention.  In the first season, we begin with Vorenus and Pullo on campaign in Gaul, but as they enter Rome in the second episode, we see Antony having sex with a shepherdess in front of her flock.  I mention this because a similar image occurs at the end of season 1, when Pullo and his wife Irene go outside the city to the country, and the last shot we see of them is the pair walking hand in hand, past a flock of sheep.  Whether there is anything to this I can’t be sure, but the image doesn’t recur in the second season.  And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something there about the city vs. pastoral life, between being inside the city vs outside.  Certainly, the show takes place in the second season mostly in Rome, mostly in one area of Rome, the Aventine Hill, but I couldn’t help thinking there was something going on there.  Perhaps it was related to another theme that came through even more clearly to me, which is the idea of who is a “good man” or not.  The phrase occurs several times throughout the series, especially in the last episode.  There, Cleopatra asks Vorenus if Titus Pullo is a “good man,” and Vorenus replies “define good.” (And yes, not to spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen the show, but Pullo knows Cleopatra intimately, another one of those very fictional elements in the show).  And at the end, in discussing Vorenus, both Pullo and Octavian agree he was a “good man.”  I think what might be going on here is the not so subtle message in the series that the friendship between Vorenus and Pullo is more important than their relationships with the “great men” of politics, that friendship is of more enduring value than the power games their social superiors are caught up in (and which all, save for Octavian, die from).

This too might have something to do with the show’s sort of working class ethos, mentioned above, with regards to one last thing that caught my attention.  In the first season, Julius Caesar seems to want to do more than “play” at being a god in his triumph, something emphasized by his reaction to Antony pointing out how absurd the whole charade was:  “I am not playing.  This is not a game.”  The motif of men pretending to be gods comes out again, when Antony accuses Octavian of trying to portray himself as divine by having Julius Caesar posthumously declared a god in the second season (which Octavian did in fact do).  Then finally there is question of Caesarion, Julius Caesar’s love child by Cleopatra, who of course believes himself to be divine, but whose actual parentage is revealed to be much humbler in the end.  I point all this out because I couldn’t help thinking that the show’s creators, with their keen sense of the difference between the pre-Christian and Christian worlds, weren’t tweeking the idea of a divine-human savior who comes to save mankind at the end of the series.  The final episode was title “De Patre Vostro (About Your Father), and I just couldn’t help thinking that this was a cheeky, skeptical gloss on the birth of Christ.  If it was, it was a fitting end to the show, which though I obviously disagree with that skepticism, still gives you a sense of the dynamism and verve that it provided its viewers.  And now, if you haven seen the show yet, go ahead and treat yourself.  You will not be disappointed.

Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on February 13, 2014.

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