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.