Jeremy J. Baer
(This review first appeared on UNRV and is reproduced with the permission of the author.)
Bad sex, it is said, is still pretty good, insofar as it is preferable to no sex at all. Unfortunately one cannot say the same thing about bad history. One spends too long in anticipation and preparation; the actual event proceeds rather clumsily; and when the climax (such as it is) finally arrives, one gets the sense it was hardly worth it. I do not mean to suggest that I am UNRV’s resident expert on bad sex, but after watching the 2nd season of Rome I know a thing or two about bad history. The problem with Rome is precisely that its sex is better than its history and left me feeling like a dirty whore for watching it.
I believe that Rome helped inaugerate an era of so-called historical dramas that play more like costumed soft porn. Showtime’s The Tudors seems like a direct response to HBO’s Rome – even lighter on history and heavier on sex. I can forgive this in The Tudors as it never pretended to be anything other than what it is. However, the 1st season of Rome amply demonstrated that one could have a sexy drama without totally mutilating history, and it strove to be something grand. In my review of the previous season, I stated that the 1st season was, despite its flaws, the best attempt yet to portray Roman culture. I stand by that review. But I also said the 2nd season had to deliver on the promises of the first. Manifestly it did not, I am afraid.
The 2nd season spans the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s assassination to Octavian’s post-Actium triumph. Drama and sex there is to be had in plenty. But the show’s production costs must have been so enormous that they fired the historical consultants to save money. Some of the more egregious errors include: an Attia of the Julii long outliving her historical counterpart; Servilla of the Junii committing suicide when she actually lived a long life; Octavian marrying Livia with no mention of his previous affairs; Agrippa having a non-historical affair with Octavian’s sister; Caesarion escapes murder; and no mention at all of the Triumviri’s war with Pompei the Great’s pirate son. Most of the religious rituals involved in the show are also from what I can tell complete fantasy.
Historical negligence aside, I can also point to deficiencies within the much vaunted dramatic writing. Take Lucius Vorennus’ evolution over the season. In the first season he never seemed to care much about his children beyond the appearance of a stable Roman family, nor did he ever seem to feel that slavery was wicked. Suddenly he is transformed into a loving father who must rescue his children from the vile services of a slave camp, and spend the rest of the season rehabilitating them into family life. At least his children had the grace to spend most of the season begrudging him their mother’s death at his hands. I for one do not buy the sudden shift in his character. His children should have been happily written off as murdered or slave fodder, and life could go on.
Vorennus also becomes something of the Godfather of the Aventine, a leader of the underworld gangs. He is propped up by the Second Triumvirate, for they see an organized mafia as more peaceful than a disorganized mafia. I suppose we must also consider that the Triumviri are glorified gangsters themselves in many ways. Indeed, Vorennus’s spiritual state seemingly becomes a microcosm of the Republic. As the Republic slides further into civil strife, Vorennus becomes more of an underhanded crook (save for his curiously newfound concern for his children, described above). By the time Octavian reigns as a king in everything but name, our tragic Vorennus is on his deathbed, thus expiring along with the Republic. I am again not convinced of Vorennus’ character development in this vein. It seemed forced.
Titus Pullo, having always been something of a rogue, is better able to deal with the death of the Republic. He succeeds handedly as a gangland officer, and no job from the underhanded Triumvirate is too dirty. But one thing I never believed about Pullo is that he would settle down with one woman and start a family. The 2nd season focuses on his failed attempts to do just that, as a jealous and sexy slave woman throws a wrench into his plans. At the end, after much suffering, we have a joyous reunion between him and his bastard son from Cleopatra (the joke being everyone thought it was Caesar’s son Caesarion). For the entire series to end on this guffaw is rather disappointing.
I personally would have been happier to see Pullo and Vorennus written out. In the first season they were a way for the average viewer to watch Roman history through the eyes of everyday people. But as the second season descended into non-historical drama, they were merely swept up in the silliness. If eliminating these two characters’ plotlines meant the writers would have had more time to focus on historical characters performing actual history, I say they should have died along with Caesar.
There is the strange subplot involving Timon the Jew, who finally rebels against his wicked employment with Attia. Good for him. But the series then spends unnecessary time portraying him as a born again Hebrew, fighting secret wars in Rome for the benefit of Zion. With this the last season and so much Roman history unresolved, was this plot line really necessary? Roman era Jews make for an interesting study, but I felt Timon’s story should have been deleted unless there were many successive seasons remaining over which to develop his character.
There is also a marked sub-text conveyed with each episode: female domination and intrigue. Roman women were formally excluded from the political and military leadership of the state. Within domestic life and religious life women had more latitude to exercise authority and prestige, but even there we should not mistake Republican Rome for anything other than the patriarchy it was. Yet the writers of Rome seem to portray the fall of the Republic as essentially a power struggle between the matriarchs of rival clans. Attia is the scheming, profane vixen of the Julii who hitches her star first to her uncle Caesar, then becomes bedmate to Antony, and finally yields reluctantly to Octavian’s authority. Servilla is the somewhat more dignified and traditional mistress of the Junii – Brutus’s mother. While she claims to uphold the interests of the Republic from the forces of tyranny, she more eagerly seeks revenge against the Julii for her former lover Caesar’s slight and Attia’s insults. Finally, within the Vorennus/Pullo thread we have a scheming slave mistress who tries to gain power by seducing both of our Roman everymen – even going so far as to poison the latter’s pregnant wife. Having attractive females plot and scheme and sexualize makes for good drama … but it does place a damper on the historical element as we know it. The only midly historical elements in this vein are a few well-played scenes with Livia, who demonstrates she can keep up intellectually with her husband’s plots, as well as the entire sub-plot with the unforgettable Cleopatra’s bid for power.
This is not say to the season is totally without merit. There is the sex which I mentioned above, which is admittedly hot and frequent. The sets are as gorgeous as ever, spanning the dirty alleys of Rome to Egyptian palaces. The acting from our British cast is generally superb; James Purefoy especially makes for the best cinematic Marc Antony ever.
The addition of new characters are usually well-played. Maecenas and Agrippa are introducued as Octavian’s chums and confidants. While I’m not sure what to make of Agrippa the boyscout, the wily but hedonistic Maecenas is truly delightful. Lepidus is portrayed as Aristocratic but ineffectual, with no one really paying much attention to what he says. A young Livia is beautiful and hints at some of her deeper intellectual wiles.
Old supporting characters like Caesar’s educated Greek slave Posca do not disappoint; Posca switches loyalties between Octavian and Antony, betrays them both in a scheme with Maecenas, and still finds time to marry an attractive if intellectually vapid woman. Cleopatra is back in all her glory; despite being the ancient equivalent of a crack addict she nonetheless conveys all the sexually charged ambition the original must have possessed.
And finally there is the newsreader, who is as lively and portly as ever, carrying along the plots with his daily announcements.
Nonetheless, in the sum of things, I cannot recommend the second season of Rome beyond anything other than a sex-filled costume drama. Watching it is like watching the fall of the Rome itself; tragic, overly belabored and wrong. It did not have to end like this and it should not have. Hot sex is no substitue for history. When history is done right it is better than cheap sex.