Since some of my last few posts have to do with television shows (Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Sopranos), I figure now is a good time to explore one of my favorite television shows of all time: HBO’s Rome. It’s the most expensive show in television history, costing around $100 million dollars per season with the production budget spread over three different networks, and its short run (only two season and 20 episodes) is explained by this exorbitant price. Rome features a long list of both new and recognizable British actors and is, at least in my opinion, one of the most spectacular looking shows on television. On top of its excellent acting, highly engrossing story, and mesmerizing visual art direction, the show is excessively pornographic and violent. At least a gallon of blood is spilled and nudity is commonplace.
The show begins at the end of the Gallic war, when Caesar conquers Gaul, captures the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, and a standoff between Pompey and Caesar about to commence, thrusting Rome into civil war. Although the politics of Rome are very important to the series, the story of two Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, is the show’s center. Vorenus (Kevin McKidd from Trainspotting) and Pullo (Ray Stevenson from Punisher: War Zone, which is a great slasher flick) are the only two soldiers mentioned by name in Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul, adding a bit of historical accuracy to a show which plays with Roman history. While series creator Bruno Heller’s attempt to adhere to historical fact is admirable, Rome takes many liberties with Roman history. Sometimes it changes historical events for dramatic effect and at other times storylines involving real people (Atia of the Julii, Servilia, Brutus, Cleopatra, and others) are outright crafted, creating melodrama where it probably didn’t exist in reality. The series follows from the end of Caesar’s victory in Gaul, his victory over Pompey and rise to dictator of Rome, to his eventual downfall – and this is only the first season. The show concludes with Caesar Augustus becoming the first emperor of Rome. It’s a shame the show ended too, since Roman history is rich; open to a variety of plotlines involving the peace achieved by Augustus, Caligula, Nero burning down half the city, and a few hundred more years of insanity.
The sets and art direction is the richest portion of the show. Instead of portraying Rome as a clean, white marble city, Rome is depicted as filthy: people throw piss out the windows, the streets are muddy, and people are sick, hungry, and poor. I find this approach more intriguing; it displays the creators’ knowledge of what the ancient world was like – cleanliness and luxury were reserved only for the very rich. I remember reading in a book by Karl Krist called The Romans that there were three water supplies going into the city: one for the plebs, one for the patricians, and another for the military. It’s no surprise the rich had their own water, untouched by the masses and probably containing less disease. The graffiti on the walls of the city is interesting too, especially since the only living examples of this are at Pompeii, which was preserved by a volcano eruption almost 2,000 years ago. This graffiti was the voice of the city – sometimes propaganda and sometimes free speech – but always conveying the messages of the time. In the first season when Brutus’ conspiracy against Caesar is budding, drawings of Brutus stabbing Caesar in the back were on every wall in the city. When Atia (Caesar’s niece) wanted to end the clandestine relationship between Caesar and Servilia, she hired artists to draw lewd pictures of the two on every wall, forcing him to abandon his affair. Much like the muckrakers or bloggers of our time, these scribblers contributed to the dialogue going on in the city. Implementing this as part of the show was a good idea.
The show appeared on HBO in 2005, amidst the blunders and crimes of the Bush administration. The show’s depiction of Roman power (and abuses of power) says something about our contemporary times. Caesar’s war in Gaul, illegal in the eyes of many Roman senators, mirrors Bush’s Iraq gaffe – Caesar’s bribing of the plebs with money and jobs; misinformation about one’s enemies read in the streets to create patriotism; the assassination of dissidents (which isn’t much different than the symbolic deaths of Libby, Plame, or others). The show doesn’t dwell on allegories pertaining to current times, but it does make bold statements about where we live and how we aren’t all that different than our ancient counterparts.
Another great thing about the show is the main characters. Caesar, Mark Anthony, Pullo, Vorenus, and the rest of the male cast is usually seen as the primary protagonists, yet the real power over events lies in the women on the show. While Octavian’s imprisonment of his sister and mother in the second season indicates the power lies with the men, there is more power in the bedroom than the floor of the senate, which is the case for the majority of the show. Octavian’s benevolent incarceration of his family takes away their power, it also leads to his sorrow, his disconnection from the women in his life, and ultimately it leaves him with only one possession – Rome. I’ll admit that kind of power is probably intoxicating, but a life strictly composed of power is less satisfying than having loved ones. Through all of this subjugation by men, the women generally control the events of the male characters. Atia has the ear of both Caesar and Mark Anthony; Servilia has power over her son Brutus; Gaia and Eirene control Pullo as Niobe does Vorenus. I’m sure it can be argued this isn’t true and in many cases that argument would be solid, since Rome was a male dominated society. Yet many influential moments owe their instigation to the women: Servilia, Gaia, Niobe, Octavia, Cleopatra, and especially Atia.
The slaves are another interesting group on Rome. Slavery in ancient Rome was different than American slavery: many were well educated and earning or buying one’s freedom was possible. Unlike the American enslavement of African Americans, who were kept ignorant by their owners (wasn’t Exodus cut out of the Bibles given to slaves?), Roman enslavement was achieved by conquest, not kidnapping. Ok, many Roman slaves were kidnapped, but not in the same way America’s slaves were. Yes, the Romans employed indigenous people to enslave their own people, but usually after Roman troops had conquered and pillaged the area already. Characters on Rome like Caesar’s primary slave, Posca, is a well educated Greek slave, sometimes more cunning than their master. Posca’s council helps Caesar many times, influencing his decisions and his perspective towards certain situations. He brokers many of Caesar and Mark Anthony’s business dealings and bribes, works as their lawyer, and engages in clandestine operations for his betters.
A show about ancient Rome is bound to have epic battles – Spartacus is a prime example. Rome has its fair share, but in relation to the silver screen epics of the past it is conservative. Don’t let this lead you to believe there aren’t any battles, but the show only has one gigantic military battle, between Brutus and Cassius on one side and Anthony and Octavian on the other. There is a surplus of swordplay on the show, usually involving Pullo and Vorenus and other moments of physical violence occur in every episode, but if you’re looking for large scale military battles, Rome only features one and shows parts of others. Many times the major conflicts are shown after the main battle occurred, with the aftermath receiving attention. I know the show’s budget probably didn’t allow for such extravagance, but the political maneuvering that leads to these events is more intriguing than any bloody battle.
Speaking of blood, the show has more than anybody would ever need. Every episode features hefty amounts of violence. Characters are beaten to death, stabbed, suffocated, decapitated, tortured. Their eyes are cut out, their throats are ripped out, brain surgery is shown (without anesthesia), people fall on their swords, some are poisoned, and much more. The death of Cicero in the second season is particularly vile, with a sword jammed down through his collarbone. Another excellently violent scene involves ancient brain surgery. In the first season Pullo is hit in the head, leaving a piece of glass embedded in his cranium. After opening up his head, sawing open his skull, pulling the piece out, and placing a metal plate on his skull and putting it in place with tiny nails, it’s not certain whether he’ll live or not. Naturally he does since he’s the star of the show, but the aural and visual representation of the procedure does make his survival questionable.
The nudity on the show is, like the violence, excessive. Every episode features some form of nudity. Most episodes feature all the taboo body parts and a great deal of the acts deemed pornographic by our society. The last episode in the series features an orgy, complete with sex, male and female genitals (balls too), and a lust for physical gratification that summarizes the entire series. James Purefoy (Mark Anthony) has no problems showing off his junk in a bunch of scenes; the most notorious one I can think of is during a meeting with Vorenus, where a slave is taking his measurements. Discussing business with his package in full view seems normal to him, as it probably did to many Romans of the time. For those insecure with their own bodies, Rome is a reminder that our species wasn’t always that way.
Another topic of interest on Rome is drug use. The first season doesn’t depict a great deal of this aside from Cleopatra’s addiction to opium, but the second season is filled with drugs – opiates and marijuana being the primary ones. Octavia smokes pot with her friend Jocasta and even her mother Atia indulges. Mark Anthony and Cleopatra smoke a great deal of opium in the last few episodes of the show, with Anthony’s habit a catalyst for his eventual downfall. The use of various narcotics in the ancient world isn’t depicted as something taboo, unlike our society. Instead it seems that drugs are something primarily for the rich, while the plebs drink alcohol.
I’d like to go into the characters on the show, examining each individually but I feel it would make for a very long post. Like many of my posts, I like to leave them open-ended, which means that I’ll eventually get back to the topic. Below are two trailers I found for the show.