Sunday, April 15, 2007


I watched the first season of HBO’s Rome on DVD. It is a mixture of good and bad. Depending on taste, the bad might be too repulsive to make the series enjoyable. It has explicit sex and violence and much brutal naturalism. Typical of the modern approach, the filmmakers take great pride in showing naturalistic touches of ancient Rome that have been left out of more romanticized movies. “Hey, look – ancient Rome had shit and piss and graffiti and garbage!” Well, hallelujah.

The historical naturalism does have a certain value, as do Japanese movies or science fiction, because it’s not the city next door, it’s an exotic, different world. This can go a long way toward making a TV show visually interesting and fascinating, but it cannot replace the requirements of literature.

HBO’s Rome is a world of gangsters, a world where might makes right. As such, there are no heroes in this story, just people clawing at one another in the pursuit of power. Rome was indeed a brutal culture, but it also had a certain nobility as the plays of Shakespeare and Corneille show us. Today’s filmmakers are incapable of understanding or portraying nobility and heroism.

The best thing about the series is that it tells adventure stories about two legionnaires, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. These stories have moments of swashbuckling fun, like Conan the Barbarian. Such historical adventure stories are the last fading glow of the 19th century romantic novels of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas. Their stories are unfortunately dragged down by a lot of naturalistic drama concerning Vorenus’s family. Neither man is terribly admirable.

The worst thing about the series is Brutus. It just made me cringe how they made Brutus a sniveling neurotic with an Oedipus complex. I can see making him tragically conflicted, as Shakespeare did, but HBO’s modern approach robs him of all dignity and stature and makes him a laughable, whining boy manipulated by a domineering mother. And it's such a cliche; if you wanted to satirize modern drama, you couldn't beat this Brutus.

No famous character is allowed much nobility or dignity in this series. Cato is a crotchety old man, Cicero a second rate grumbler, Marc Antony a cynical gangster, Cleopatra a power-seeking slut and so on.

All in all, Rome is about what you’d expect from historical drama today. Asking for tightened plots, elevated characters and even, ye gods, a theme nobler than “Rome was a dog eat dog world” is asking far too much from today’s filmmakers.


Galileo Blogs said...

I enjoyed Rome, although I agree with your description. For me, the details of Roman life alone made the first season quite enjoyable. Ancient Rome was so different, it was so *alien* compared to our world today that all the gritty details simply made it more interesting.

The aspect of Rome that was so interesting to me was how non-Christian it was. There is no hint of Christian altruism anywhere. Yes, the Romans are bloodthirsty and hedonistic, but they do believe pursuit of material pleasure is a good thing. How refreshing to see that.

My two favorite characters were Titus Pullo and Julius Caesar. In particular, Julius Caesar was a great character. The actor who played him, Ciaran Hinds, captured the majesty, cunning and intelligence of the man. His character seemed larger-than-life.

All in all, I really enjoyed Rome, being mindful of the shortcomings you point out.

By the way, I emphatically do *not* recommend the second season. Whatever plot integrity and drama was present in the first season is completely missing in the second. It had the feel of a daily soap opera, and seems like it was made by a different write/director team. I recommend not watching it.

Myrhaf said...

Good points, Galileo. I'm sorry to hear that season two goes downhill. I was looking forward to seeing Cassius and Brutus meet their fate at Philippi and then seeing Octavius outwit Antony in the scramble for power. Now that Niobe is dead I was hoping for less soap opera and more adventure.

EdMcGon said...

For a good show on ancient Rome, I recommend "I, Claudius" if you haven't already seen it. While it concentrates on the lives of the Roman royalty, it is still fun to watch, even if it is 30 years old. ;)

Myrhaf said...

I watched that in the early '80s. Derek Jacobi is excellent as the stuttering Claudius.

Billy Beck said...

I enjoyed the first season, all while realizing its failures. And I don't mind the naturalism: I think that if a twenty-first century American were somehow transported to the time of Caesar's reign, it would very likely be the first overwhelming sensation they would experience: "Look at this place!" I thought Hinds' Caesar was well done, and so was the young Octavian, which is a not-bad glimpse of the personal character that would emerge in the forty-two year reign of Augustus.

We all know that Pullo and Vorenus are real characters taken from Caesar's "Commentaries", right? They've been dramatically extrapolated for the series, but I don't have a problem with that.

Personally, when I look back at Cicero, I think he was a bit of a worm, but not nearly so flagrant as they've played him, and I don't have too much of a problem with with Cato as a "crotchety old man" at that point in his life.

The second season wasn't nearly so good. Phillipi and Actium are throw-away accessories. Only the broadest outlines of the Octavian/Antony facedown are present, and that whole swathe of the struggle is not much more than a vehicle for female fretting (Atia and Octavia) over domestic tranquility and sexual security. "Soap opera", for sure.

Still -- and you can call me a cloud-headed dreamer -- I could hold out the hope that a worthwile number of casual viewers might take enough interest to read some real history.

Myrhaf said...

Yeah, about real history, I wonder how many viewers were surprised when the the Senators assassinated Julius Caesar?

Billy Beck said...

Well, it was a fairly good-looking stage set.

Greg said...

I enjoyed the naturalism in the show. I recently started reading Cesar’s Messiah by Joe Atwill about the Roman conspiracy to invent Christianity and the show Rome provided an excellent general context for the time period. Especially after watching the show it’s not hard to imagine such ruthless cunning from Rome’s leaders. What an amazing and horrible time.

Galileo Blogs said...

I agree with Billy Beck's comment about the young Octavian in the first season. He clearly displayed the characteristics that the later Augustus Caesar would have. I was not happy at all with the new actor who played Octavian in the second season, nor many of the new actors who appeared in his retinue.

As for the set, I loved it. Rome's streets were very narrow, just like the old Roman streets that still exist today. The Senate looked like the still standing Roman Senate, albeit it seemed a little larger.

Tom Rowland said...

I have not seen the show, but your description of it makes me believe that it is probably pretty acurate from what I've read. Rome, as Durant says in "Ceaser and Christ," self-distructed long before it was conquered from without. And the parallels with today's US are truly horrific, with the barbarians already at the gate and the Christians ready to pounce on the carcass.