Select Page

[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.