Friday, 15 November 2019

The Power and the Glory: A Rome Retrospective

Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) returning victorious after the Battle of Pharsalus.

HBO’s Rome is quite possibly the most underrated show in that broadcaster’s canon of very, very fine TV programmes. Airing for just two seasons and 22 episodes in 2005 and 2007, Rome arrived in a blaze of publicity, hyped as the most expensive ongoing TV show ever made, a cross-ocean co-production between HBO and the BBC. Critical indifference and declining viewing figures saw the BBC pull out of funding the series after its second year and HBO, uncharacteristically panicking, chose to cancel the show. A later critical reappraisal and very healthy DVD and Blu-Ray box set sales made HBO realise they’d made a terrible mistake, but it was far too late to remount the project. The actors had scattered to numerous other projects and the moment was lost.

Still, although Rome’s time in this world was brief, it was certainly memorable, and more and more people are rediscovering the show every year. Its brief run is also nowadays a strength: convincing someone to watch a show that lasted for eight or ten or fifteen seasons and hundreds of episodes is tough, but 22? You can bash that out in a couple of weekends, tops.

Rome tells the story of one of the most pivotal moments in pre-modern history: the transformation of the Roman Republic, a nation without a king, into the Roman Empire, whose ruler was the most powerful human being in European history this side of Napoleon Bonaparte. It tells the story of Gaius Julius Caesar and his second-in-command Mark Antony, and the woman they both loved, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. It tells the story of Caesar’s family, the Julii, and their initial friendly relations with another family, the Junii, that turned sour and ultimately led to the most famous son of that house, Marcus Junius Brutus, betraying Caesar in a moment of profound infamy. It is the story of Caesar’s nephew Octavian, a studious and quiet boy who will ultimately become the most powerful man on Earth. It is also the story of a dozen or so historical figures of only marginally less importance: the great orator Cicero, the senators Cato and Cassius, and Pompey Magnus, the great general and hero of the Republic who saw his formidable reputation eclipsed by that of his former best friend, Caesar.

Mark Antony (James Purefoy) and Cleopatra of Egypt (Lyndsey Marshal).

If Rome was all of those things alone, it would still be a triumph, but the show’s masterstroke was to be more than that. Rome tells the story of the rich and the powerful primarily through the eyes of two ordinary soldiers: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Surprisingly, these are not total fabrications, being the only two common soldiers mentioned by Caesar in name in his memoir of the Gallic Wars. With virtually nothing else known about them, though, the show’s writers felt happy to invent their family backgrounds, their relationship and how they interacted with Caesar and the other mighty figures of Roman history over a period of twenty-five years. Vorenus and Pullo are our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (only somewhat less likely to die), our ground-level eyes on this epic period in history. They’re also our eyes into everyday life in Rome for its ordinary citizens, freedmen, and slaves. There is a tendency in history to get caught up in the soap-opera like events of the rulers and their families, and exciting things like battles and political intrigue, but Rome remembers the little people, the man and woman on the street who wield tremendous power of their own: at several key moments in the series, the opinion of the street results in major shifts in the balance of power.

The show also delves into religion and how the different myriad cultures that make up the Empire interact with one another. Rome was not a monolithic bloc, but instead a grand melting pot of dozens of faiths, kingdoms, tribes and beliefs. One relatively minor character, a Jewish horse-trader and part-time thug named Timon, grows in importance as the complex interactions between Rome and its client-state in Judaea rise to the fore.

Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) of the XIII Legion, the ground-level soldiers through whose eyes much of the series unfolds.

Each episode of Rome is a mixture, often very cleverly-constructed, of historical fact, dramatic invention and family soap opera. It may be instructive to give a summary of the very first episode of the series, The Stolen Eagle, to explain how this works:

The episode opens in 52 BC. The army of Gaius Julius Caesar is besieging the Gallic fortress-town of Alesia, where King Vercingetorix has taken refuge with his army. A much larger Gallic relief army has arrived but, anticipating their arrival, Caesar has built an enormous defensive fortification stretching for twenty miles right around Alesia. The lines come under attack from the relief army and also from Vercingetorix’s forces within Alesia, but the Romans defeat the vastly numerically superior Gauls and take Vercingetorix prisoner. Key in the battle is the discipline and valour of Centurion Lucius Vorenus of the 13th Legion, although he is disgruntled with his subordinate Titus Pullo, who lacks battle discipline and frequently breaks ranks to seek personal glory in the field. Pullo ends up in the stockade for striking Vorenus mid-combat.

Back in Rome, the Senate is divided about Caesar’s constant stream of military victories over the preceding eight years. Caesar has brought all of Gaul under Roman control, extending the Republic’s borders and creating vast new provinces to be controlled by his allies. Caesar’s fame has also grown through his brief and mostly pointless, but still unprecedented, military sojourn on the island of Britain. Caesar has won him and his army honour, glory and gold, and his popularity with the common people is at an all-time high. The Senate is divided into two parties: the Populares, who support Caesar, and the conservative Optimates, who are wary of him. Holding the line in the middle is a neutral faction led by the noted orator and speaker Cicero, who privately sympathises with the Optimates but publicly will not speak against Caesar. The Optimates turn to Pompey Magnus for aid. Pompey is a great military hero in his own right but his conservatism and decision to remain in Rome rather than rule over his own provinces in Spain in person has made him popular with the Senate. Pompey is a close friend and ally of Caesar’s, not to mention his son-in-law by marriage, and refuses to countenance betraying him, despite being troubled by Caesar’s apparent idolisation by the masses and his own troops.

The Newsreader (Ian McNeice), who relates the important events of the day and stands in as a useful font of exposition.

In a similar boat is Marcus Brutus, a young man who looks up to Caesar as a mentor but is also a staunch supporter of the Republic who is suspicious of any one man who puts his ambitions ahead of the good of the state. Brutus is a direct descendant of the man who, centuries earlier, killed the last King of Rome and founded the Republic. Brutus’s mother Servillia is also a former lover of Caesar’s, and yearns for his return from war. These loyalties to Caesar have aligned their family, the Junii, with Caesar’s own Julii, the matriarch of which is Caesar’s niece Atia, a hedonistic but also ruthless woman who is an occasional lover of Caesar’s second-in-command, the charismatic but short-tempered Mark Antony. Initial friendly relations start to turn sour, however, as the somewhat reserved and intelligent Servillia finds herself constantly clashing with Atia, whom she considers her intellectual and social inferior. Atia also causes division with her own family: her hot temper and quick decisions befuddle her son Octavian, a clever, reserved and logically-minded boy, and annoy her daughter, the prim and proper Octavia. The feud between the Junii and Julii begins to become more serious when Atia gazumps Servillia at a horse auction to secure the finest steed in Rome. She then sends Octavian to Caesar’s camp with the horse as a gift. The move appears to be thwarted when Octavian is captured by brigands in Gaul, although in reality they are agents in the employ of Pompey.

Pompey’s close alliance with Caesar is tested when his wife, Caesar’s daughter, dies in childbirth (along with the child). Caesar moves quickly to have Atia force Octavia divorce her husband (to Octavia’s distress) and promise Octavia in marriage to Pompey. Pompey is tempted and beds her, but is also being courted by Scipio, an enemy of Caesar’s, who offers instead his daughter Cornelia.

Meanwhile, one of Caesar’s eagle standards has been captured by Gallic raiders and Lucius Vorenus is ordered to recover the eagle by any means necessary. He recruits Titus Pullo from the stockade, reasoning he is the most expendable man in the legion, and they set out to find the eagle. After subjecting local villagers to a mixture of torture and bribery, they learn the identity of the thieves; by happy coincidence, they find not only the eagle but also the captured Octavian. Returning both to Caesar earns them the friendship and respect of Octavian, and the notice of Caesar. Pullo, who values personal loyalty, is very happy but Vorenus, who is morally opposed to Caesar’s growing cult of personality, is less-pleased. Antony and Caesar recognise Pompey’s agent and behead him, sending the head to Pompey to let him know his plan has been discovered. Furious, Pompey marries Cornelia and breaks all ties with Caesar, throwing his lot in with the Optimates.

Atia (Polly Walker), the ruthless matriarch of the Julii family.

As we can see from this, a typical episode of Rome is extremely busy, and does several things at once. It relates an actual historical event, it explains the personal, political and military ramifications of that event and it also has invented, original drama to keep the viewer interested. There’s also an element of simplification involved: the Optimate and Populare parties are never named as such in the show (instead being described as the Caesarean and Republican factions) a lot of the fine detail of the period is missing. For example, Caesar and Pompey are described as co-consuls, but this is inaccurate: it was Caesar wanting to be consul after his return from war, as he might expect having won a series of huge military victories, and the Senate’s refusal to grant him the position that primarily triggered his rebellion against the Senate. There is also some more fantastical invention: Octavian was never kidnapped by Gallic brigands and rescued by two common Roman soldiers. There’s also some action, sex and violence: episodes of Rome can vary on how much of these things they contain, with some episodes being very bloody and others not at all, but generally some of these events happen to maintain viewer interest (how useful that actually is remain debateable).

Rome’s success was grasping the complexity of Roman life and getting not just the bare facts but the everyday feel of that lifestyle across to the audience rather than begging bogged down in detail. One interesting fresh approach, in marked contrast to almost every previous Roman film and TV drama, was showing Rome as a colourful city, the beautiful stone and marble buildings being covered in gaudy paint and obscene graffiti, as was really the case. The Roman military’s iron discipline, such as the arrangement so that each line of infantry will only fight for four minutes before being rotated to the back of the line for half an hour of rest, is also depicted. Unfortunately, despite Rome’s titanic budget, the show frequently wimped out on major battle scenes. The only battle they really had a go at depicting was Philippi in Season 2 and even that is a somewhat bare-bones affair compared to say Lord of the Rings or what HBO achieved on the later seasons of Game of Thrones. As a result, despite Pullo and Vorenus being soldiers, we very rarely seem them actually fighting as soldiers. More frequently they are seen operating almost as henchmen or mercenaries, fighting in very small groups and skirmishes.

The show also, by necessity, lowballs the timeline. The show opens in 52 BC and ends in 27 BC, spanning a period of twenty-five years, but virtually no attempt is made to show the passage of time, aside from the recasting of Octavian with a slightly older actor in Season 2 (Vorenus and Pullo, for example, start and end the show as thirty-somethings). There are also wild inconsistencies in the aging of the children in the show: Vorenus’s son is shown as a newborn in the second episode but appears to be around 10 in the series finale, whilst Caesar and Cleopatra’s son is conceived, born and apparently grows to around 11 or 12 in later episodes. For those who enjoy paying attention to the details, these things are grating, but in the grand scheme of things they’re not very important.

What is important is the characterisation (excellent), politics (rife with intrigue) and how Rome portrays the culture in both the macro and micro, the lavish detail given to religious ceremonies, feasting customs and the architecture of the city, recreated in a lavish open-air set in the Cinecittá Studio in Rome (near where Ben-Hur was filmed). The set was damaged by fire in 2007 but is mostly still standing, and has been used for other productions since filming ended (most notably the Fires of Pompeii episode of Doctor Who). This epic scope was remarkable for television, and arguably not matched until Game of Thrones hit screens four years later.

Octavian (Simon Woods), the boy who would be emperor, and Marcus Agrippa (Allen Leech), a constantly-underestimated young man who turns into one of the greatest generals of antiquity.

Rome is also interesting for how matter-of-fact it is. At different points in the series, both Pullo and Vorenus do things which are deeply amoral, if not outright evil, and also perform great acts of self-sacrifice heroism. Mark Antony is scheming, ruthless and selfish, but also capable of tremendous generosity to the (tiny number of) people who earn his respect, including Atia and Vorenus. Caesar’s motivations, probably the most fiercely-debated in history, are left pleasingly ambiguous in the series.

Could Rome one day return? Perhaps. A few years ago, HBO began developing a new TV series based on Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which would have used the still-standing Rome sets and would have effectively worked as a sequel to that series, picking up on Octavian as a much older man and the misadventures of his heirs, the insane Caligula and stuttering Claudius. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to take off. A shame, as the power and glory and rich worldbuilding of Rome deserves to be seen on screens once more.

If you haven’t seen the show yet, do yourself a favour and check it out. Beyond the veneer of nudity and violence, it’s a compelling political and character drama, set against a rich backdrop, and well worth viewing.

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