HBO’s Rome: Down with this sort of thing! (Careful now)

[Cross pos­ted to Revise & Dissent]

Rome returns this week on HBO, so per­haps there’ll be a spring or sum­mer show­ing in the UK. However, as Adrian Murdoch says, not every­body is happy. Mediawatch-uk has already com­plained about the pro­gramme, though it’s uncer­tain as to whether any of their mem­bers have seen it yet.

I have to admit I haven’t seen the first whole series yet. I only got the DVD at Christmas and I have a couple of epis­odes to go. However so far I’m enjoy­ing it. I may lose Classics-cred for that, but the scene where Vorenus was offered a dormouse, around a cen­tury after they’d ceased being din­ner items, didn’t ruin the series for me. There are ana­chron­isms but on the whole I think it’s view of Rome is a com­pli­ment to I, Claudius.

What I think Rome does well that I, Claudius didn’t do is that it relates the power struggles in what is effect­ively an anarchic period to the lives of the ordin­ary people of Rome. Not every­one in ancient Rome was an emperor — not even in the third cen­tury AD. Rome was a place where people could dis­ap­pear after dark if they walked down the wrong alley. It was a place where people gambled and fought. It was a place where people had cheap sex and after­wards, if the graf­fitti of Pompeii is any­thing to go by, scrawled on the walls to tell people what a bar­gain it was.

The Mediawatch-uk com­plaint is a con­cern. John Beyer’s com­ment, “I assume that the BBC hopes the con­tro­versy will bring big audi­ences, but con­tro­versy can’t sus­tain a pro­gramme which has very little else to offer,” seems to be rooted in ignor­ance, because the first series of Rome was an inter­est­ing and intel­li­gent por­trayal of the end of the Republic. Certainly the ancient world was a world of nobles vying for power, but it also had a crim­inal ele­ment too. The reason why Classics is an inter­est­ing topic today is that there’s a recog­ni­tion that the two social circles were not mutu­ally exclus­ive. Beyer’s com­plaint ignores this. In con­trast books like Debra Hamel’s Trying Neaira do a very good job of show­ing how the two worlds collide.

I think Rome is as true as ancient Rome as any other drama has been. There are ana­chron­isms, but that’s inev­it­able given it’s for a twenty-first cen­tury audi­ence. Also the interests of the ancients are not that far from mod­ern people’s. You can read in Suetonius’s Life of Caesar:

I pass over the speeches of Dolabella, and Curio, the father, in which the former calls him [Caesar] “the queen’s rival, and the inner-side of the royal couch,” and the lat­ter, “the brothel of Nicomedes, and the Bithynian stew.” I would like­wise say noth­ing of the edicts of Bibulus, in which he pro­claimed his col­league under the name of “the queen of Bithynia;” adding, that “he had formerly been in love with a king, but now coveted a kingdom.”

and later:

Helvius Cinna, tribune of the people, admit­ted to sev­eral per­sons the fact, that he had a bill ready drawn, which Caesar had ordered him to get enacted in his absence, allow­ing him, with the hope of leav­ing issue, to take any wife he chose, and as many of them as he pleased; and to leave no room for doubt of his infam­ous char­ac­ter for unnat­ural lewd­ness and adul­tery, Curio, the father, says, in one of his speeches, “He was every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.”

The ancients had an interest in sex and viol­ence. If you bowd­ler­ise the past then you lose some­thing — as Tony Keen demon­strates with his beau­ti­ful arse. I think the sex and viol­ence is artist­ic­ally, dra­mat­ic­ally and even edu­ca­tion­ally jus­ti­fied. Not all edu­ca­tion is for kids.

If you don’t under­stand the title, it’s a ref­er­ence to another cam­paign for pub­lic mor­al­ity.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

9 Responses

  1. Karen says:

    We can’t for­get that ulti­mately it’s not meant to be a his­tory les­son, it’s designed as enter­tain­ment for the masses.

  2. DavidD says:

    I’m not the masses, and I like sex and viol­ence. What would be the point of a show about Rome except as an excuse to show sex and viol­ence in a shame­less way? Otherwise there are many cul­tures I’d prefer hear­ing about rather than Rome on the verge of empire yet again.

    Even then they stop far short of por­tray­ing everything that happened in the arena. I don’t think I’d watch the worst of that sort of viol­ence. That they don’t go farther with the sex, though, is not about Roman his­tory. It’s about mod­ern desires for one’s work not to be called pornography.

    Given the judg­ments of some about sex, it’s amaz­ing that people man­aged to have enough sex for there to be 6 bil­lion of us. Apparently many of us were con­ceived with the lights off, even with everyone’s eyes closed.

    Yes I like to watch enter­tain­ment for my mind, but that’s such a chal­lenge to do right. Feel free to play with my emo­tions. Feel free to por­tray my appet­ites (I do enjoy some cook­ing shows, too). Why not? My mind has always been attached to the rest of me.

  3. DavidD says:

    The second sea­son of Rome premiered this night in the US. It’s my kind of show except for one thing (well two, I haven’t seen the movies where Mel Gibson does this, but I like the idea of doing his­tor­ical movies in the nat­ive lan­guage with sub­titles). The one thing I really would like would be his­tor­ical accur­acy. I don’t know how well they did the cul­ture, but the events and I would think the per­son­al­it­ies por­trayed are so far away from real­ity. I get enough of a sense of the arti­fi­cial watch­ing it. Then in look­ing up some things, I see they didn’t even bother to try to be his­tor­ical in a com­pre­hens­ive way. Octavian was study­ing in Illyria when Caesar was killed. He raised an army and fought Antony before the two later ganged up on Senators. In the first sea­son they inven­ted this epis­ode of Octavian in Gaul, when in real­ity Octavian bon­ded with Caesar under some­what dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances in Spain.

    Then there’s the crazi­ness of everyone’s per­son­al­ity, from the Machiavellian Octavian to all these Senators who seem to have no more know­ledge of Roman polit­ics than some poor mod­ern writer just banging out the emo­tion of the situ­ation. I like this Octavian bet­ter than shows that make the future divine Augustus out to be a cow­ardly geek, but it’s still bizarre.

    It reminds me of Braveheart. I was so dis­ap­poin­ted to read the real story there and dis­cover the real battles were very dif­fer­ent, the real travels of the char­ac­ters were dif­fer­ent, even if the exe­cu­tion of William Wallace was accur­ate, which is a point I don’t think I got around to confirming.

    Old movies are so obvi­ously fake, but I keep expect­ing mod­ern por­tray­als to be accur­ate, because why not? Of course emo­tions are going to be over the top as they are with doc­tor shows or law­yer shows, but why make some parts com­plete fic­tion? I don’t mean using com­pletely fic­tional char­ac­ters to flesh out the story, but hav­ing real people say and do things that are not at all what they said and did.

    Instead of com­plain­ing about that, people com­plain about sex and viol­ence. Why can’t one have his­tor­ical accur­acy along with the enter­tain­ment of sex and viol­ence? More jobs for Ph.D.‘s. That’s my com­plaint. I sup­pose it’s a minor­ity view.

  4. DavidD says:

    I am com­pelled to men­tion that dur­ing my watch­ing the second Rome epis­ode of the second sea­son I remembered read­ing an art­icle from many years ago that lis­ted the worst movie lines of all time. I only remem­ber one, from the 1954 King Richard and the Crusaders, adap­ted from Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman, star­ring George Sanders as Richard I and Rex Harrison as Saladin. In it Virginia Mayo plays a fic­tional English lady who utters the remark­able line, “Oh, fight, fight, fight! That’s all you ever think of, Dickie Plantagenet!”

    I like the sex and viol­ence of Rome. I like the visu­als. But the per­son­al­it­ies of the char­ac­ters are ridicu­lous, and the his­tor­ical value of what they say and do is about that of Virginia Mayo’s character.

    I just have to hang on to see the bad guys die at Philippi on February 18. Then if they leave me hanging, I’ll just ima­gine that Vorenus was walk­ing through the street with Mark Antony’s head, all of the evil of this show dying with his ridicu­lous char­ac­ter. Yes, this is fun for me.

  5. Alun says:

    Thanks for the com­ments. I’m caught up with work for now but I am pay­ing atten­tion. I’ll be inter­ested to see if there’s a back­lash from the classicists.

  6. I am always some­what amused when, it talk­ing of his­tor­ical accur­acy, people worry about get­ting small details and chro­no­logy of events cor­rect. The ele­phant in the liv­ing room here is that so many “accur­ate” movies amount to little more than cos­tume parties on film. The inter­est­ing thing about the ancient world isn’t that they dressed dif­fer­ent or had a few inter­est­ing events hap­pen to them — it is that they were very dif­fer­ent people altogether.

    This is some­thing I think the Rome series does beau­ti­fully — in fact, it may do it bet­ter than I’ve ever seen. It por­trays the Romans as they were, and not as we would have them be, and not as sound­ing boards for our mod­ern moral pon­ti­fic­a­tions. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite a fan of the Judeo-Christian ethic. But I applaud the film­makers from painstak­ingly strip­ping this ethic out of the Rome series — hav­ing us enter a world where hus­bands ruled the home with the power of death, where slavery was the norm, where mercy was not seen as a vir­tue, where reli­gion had little or noth­ing to do with mor­al­ity, where hor­rific cruelty was the order of the day, where sexual orgies were rampant, where cour­age and honor were prized among all else, and where men and women, par­ents and chil­dren, friends and broth­ers were as devoted and lov­ing as ever. It’s one of the best series I have come across.

  7. DavidD says:

    Yes, yes, it’s fine that every­one in Rome is so free, but why do these char­ac­ters have to be so stu­pid? They know next to noth­ing about Roman polit­ics. These char­ac­ters aren’t the people of his­tory their names claim to be. It’s bait and switch, some child­ish dream of the real thing. I’ve been robbed. If it weren’t free for me, I’d ask for my money back. My time I’ll give them. I, Claudius was bet­ter, as much as it suffered from some of the same fantasies.

    It’s not a mat­ter of small details. I sup­pose Rome does fine on small details. It’s why people do what they do, for fam­ily, for repu­ta­tion, for prin­ciple, and even for raw power, but not just that. It’s how real people have full per­son­al­it­ies, not just char­a­catures. The sex has got­ten old. The viol­ence is lim­ited — battle scenes are severely trun­cated, with no sense of how the super­ior forces were so often beaten in these battles. OK, they don’t have the money for that, fine. I can live without an orgy of gore. I know the smell of blood. I can see the real thing in my mind. I’m still stuck need­ing to see Philippi Sunday even­ing. I’ll fill in the real battles in my mind. I just need to see Brutus and Cassius kill them­selves, so the mis­guided killers of the heroic Caesar will once more be con­fron­ted with their folly. Killing the strong man doesn’t put down the masses. That requires much more, even let­ting the masses into the élite’s game. I don’t think the series has aban­doned his­tory in that regard. Then if they do have any more epis­odes, I’ll see what my altern­at­ives are.

    Has there been a his­tor­ic­ally accur­ate movie of life before the 19th cen­tury? I won­der how accur­ate Shogun was. I don’t know Japanese his­tory that well, but at least they didn’t have Sir Francis Drake sail­ing into Tokyo Bay. Small details indeed. I won­der what Dickie Plantagenet would say about this.

  8. Alun says:

    I still haven’t seen the second series as it’s not out over here yet. Part of the famili­ar­ity with polit­ics might come from hind­sight, but I’d agree with David that some things are odd. For instance Cicero has to yell at Mark Antony to use his veto as a Tribune in the second epis­ode of the first series. Dramatically this is fine, but Mark Antony would have been aware that the whole point of him becom­ing a Tribune would have been to have to have this veto. It is drama rather than his­tory. In which case why do the small details mat­ter to the pro­duc­tion team? From Jonathan Stamp’s pod­casts, they clearly do.

    I’ll be inter­ested to see how the com­ments here com­pare to com­ments at the Classics Hell conference.

  9. DavidD says:

    Whew! They finally got rid of one set of bad guys. So many sub­plots now. If I had any patience I would have recor­ded it and watched only the 20 good minutes, but I didn’t. I know I have no patience. Philippi was miss­ing a swamp and the sep­ar­ate com­mands of the vari­ous lead­ers, among other devi­ations from real­ity. Will they ever quit treat­ing the future divine Augustus as a boy? It’s not a small detail. He had fin­ished his term as coun­sel of Rome at this point. Both Brutus and Cassius died non-historic deaths. They went for irony with Brutus. Artists so love to be artistic.

    Darn, it seems they are show­ing 4 new epis­odes in March. Maybe I’ll have enough patience now just to record them. Whoever watches this in the UK, one thing you can do in between the inter­est­ing parts is decide which sub­plot you hate the most. There are sev­eral choices. I have my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choices for worst sub­plot pretty well set at this point. Suddenly I really am look­ing for­ward to fast for­ward­ing at least through those.