Jeremy J. Baer
(This review first appeared on UNRV and is reproduced with the permission of the author.)
Hollywood was never particularly kind to Ancient Rome. A generation or two ago, it was depicted as the tyrannical Evil Empire whose amoral paganism provided the antagonistic foil to Judeo-Christian values. In contemporary times Hollywood has abandoned any moral pretense and instead inflicts soulless hype such as Gladiator upon its audience. O tempora! O mores! Where can one find an intelligent and objective assessment of Rome? Perhaps the HBO-BBC production of Rome is not a total panacea to the Romanophile’s quest for cinematic excellence, but it nonetheless strikes closer to the mark than anything else.
The age of the Late Republic is the perfect setting for grand drama. An era of violent transition, filled with characters larger than life and yet undeniably real. A time about which we know remarkably much thanks to the writings of Cicero and his contemporaries. It is an epoch that captures the imagination of both serious Romanophiles and casual students of history. Who has not heard of Caesar, Cleopatra and Marc Antony? Who has not heard of Caesar lying dead and bloodied at the base of Pompei’s statue, surrounded by dagger wielding Senators? Had it not happened we would all think it an amazing if improbable story. And yet it did happen. Living, breathing history. The pivotal moment for the foundation culture of Western Civilization. The scope of such a spectacle is surely beyond the qualities of a few actors and cameramen to capture. Yet Rome somehow visualizes the grand sweep of history and rarely loses sight of it.
The best parts of the English speaking world come together for this enterprise. A series underpinned by American production values and British acting cannot go far wrong. The production and acting, in fact, are marvelous with few exceptions. The city itself takes center stage. Far from being the beacon of marble edifices left by Augustus and his successors, this is a Rome of earlier times. Lurid, grimy, organic, and surrounded by graffiti covered walls – yet with a haunting austerity cognizant of its worldly weight. Within such a framework the characters live and die. Whether simple Plebians living banal domestic lives or world shaking Patricians, the brilliant cast largely do justice to the majesty and mayhem of the Roman citizenry. This is serious acting without being a pretentious Shakespearean festival. Throw in a dash of Italian pastoral scenery for emphasis, and one already has a nice beginning to this epic.
What truly differentiates Rome from its predecessors is its attitude. How alike and different Romans are to moderns! This sweet contradiction has invited much judgement, most of it skewed and slanted to biased agendas. Rome has finally realized the secret of our pre-Christian ancestors: religion had little to do with morality, and morality had little to do with altruism. Instead there is a world where glory and honor are held as the highest ideals, and an individual and family’s dignitas is the only social currency that matters. Nudity and sex are treated as natural, and violence a useful tool. Such a world view inspires both grand exploits and stark terrors, but rarely a dull moment. All possible colors of the Roman soul are on display here, and the series captures them without flinching or moralization. Rome is not to be judged, only experienced.
The first season DVD set encompasses six discs, with 12 episodes and bonus commentary. Chronologically the series spans the capture of Vercingetorix to Caesar’s assassination. Highlights include political intrigue at the Senate, a gripping gladiatorial game, Caesar at the Egyptian court, and Caesar’s triumphal procession. An interesting convention is using Rome’s town herald to update the viewer on the latest political news as the series progresses.
To briefly exit the titanic figures of history and ground us in Plebian faire (the Roman everymen), the series uses the convention of two ahistorical characters. Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are soldiers in Caesar’s 13th legion who are caught in the web of politics and war. The former is a centurion and a man of diehard Republican austerity. The latter is an amoral rogue. Both characters are played with relish by their respective actors and have much chemistry with each other. However, one cannot help but feel a certain stereotypical aura to these two mismatched friends, a hackneyed dynamic borne out by virtually every police partner movie ever made…
At times the series may suffer from excess. Octavian and Octavia have an incestuous affair that seems over the top. Octavia and Servilia have a gratuitous lesbian experience. Cleopatra is the ancient equivalent of a crack addict. Attia, Octavian’s mother, is given a poetic license to become the power behind the Julian throne. Vorenus and Pullo have one too may incredible adventures from which they escape unscathed.
At the end of the day, though, Rome is the most honest attempt yet to portray the physical and cultural reality of the late Republic. While not perfect, it is somehow greater than the sum of its parts: a spellbinding tour de force. It has raised the standards of the cinematic depiction of Rome for which Romanophiles everywhere should be grateful. One can only hope the second season delivers the promises made by the first.