“You look like laundry.”
Costume dramas and toga parties aren’t for everyone. But even if Gladiator left you cold, Caligula left you cringing, and I, Claudius left you feeling overly-British, HBO’s now-defunct series Rome is still worth checking out during the summer television wasteland.
Rome is about two legionaries, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. It’s about pre-middle-class urban life. It’s about colonialism. It’s about pre-Christian morality. It’s about sex, and violence, and loyalty, and fatherhood, and childhood. Oh, yeah: it’s about Julius and Augustus Caesar and the bloody chaos of the rise of the Roman Empire.
I know this is a genre site. I know that HBO’s Rome ended years ago. But what else are you going to do during the Summer TV Wasteland? (Especially if you don’t have cable?)
Season One covers Caesar’s return from Gaul (which is divided into three parts, as you will recall from Latin 101) after eight years subduing the hairy natives. Victorious, angry, and with an astonishing amount of popular support for someone who’s been away for so long, Caesar crosses the Rubicon with his vast army—a real no-no according to Republican laws, which didn’t allow generals to command troops within the Roman environs. Caesar, who is stolid, smart, and pleasantly sharp-witted, gets into a power-play with the hapless and pudgy Pompey, wins, and becomes a tyrant who is assassinated by Brutus, Cassius, and 42 other Roman senators. And if you feel spoiled, well… you should have paid better attention in Roman Civ.
Season Two is far more rushed: the producers found out that they were being cancelled mid-filming, and decided to compress what had been a five-year plan into about five episodes. So Season Two takes us from Caesar’s death to the rise of Augustus to Mark Antony’s defeat (and steamy relationship with Cleopatra) in Egypt. Against the backdrop, Lucius and Titus contend with the difficult adjustment to civilian life, and even, for a while, become something like Mafiosi in the city of Rome itself.
Lucius and Titus are, for me, the heart of the series. Lucius (Kevin McKidd, who is now on Grey’s Anatomy -- he's the grumpy one in the photo) is a “Catonian” -- he believes in the sacred Roman Republic. But he also believes in loyalty and keeping his promises. Over the course of the two seasons, this means that he, more often than not, winds up working against his own political philosophy out of loyalty to Caesar (first) and Mark Antony (later). Lucius’s home life is no simpler: after eight years away, he and his wife have some complex issues to work out. How they work them out I’ll leave for you to discover.
Titus (Ray Stevenson), who is in the brig for general disorderliness when we first meet him, is Lucius’s polar opposite. He doesn’t have a political philosophy. He doesn’t have a philosophy, at all. But he’s a spectacular fighter who is, it turns out, capable of his own kind of loyalty -- to Lucius, with whom he becomes fast friends, and to Augustus Caesar, whom he taught to fight (as a youngster) and for whom he does occasionally gruesome favors (when Caesar is actually Caesar and not just Octavius). Watching Titus grow, but stay essentially true to his essentially good nature, over the course of the series is definitely one of its high points. I liked him so much I even rented the most recent Punisher movie, in which Ray Stevenson plays the eponymous character. Sadly, I am not a Punisher fan.
History buffs will love this show -- at least, I think that’s a huge part of my affection for it. My own deep-seated hatred of Cicero for all of those damned dependent clauses and odd ablative uses made me laugh out loud when I saw him sniveling, groveling, and grasping at straws in the Caesar-Pompey death-match. But, schadenfraude aside, his death scene made me cry. Seeing Old Man Cato, scrawny and protesting in the Roman senate in a skimpy black toga, was equally amusing (Cato has a great part to play in Dante’s Purgatory, which has always endeared me to him).
Both Caesars are rather unreadable, especially Ocatvius/Octavian/Augustus, who is played by a child actor for the first half of the series, and an adult actor for the second half. He’s brilliant, cold, proto-Machiavellian, and completely unable to understand illogical, emotional behavior -- he demands loyalty but is incapable of it himself. The complexity of his character, over about 22 episodes, pretty much reveals why I think this show is just awesome. Mark Antony isn’t quite as well drawn, but I get the impression that he just wasn’t that complex of a guy. Either way, James Purfoy (who is now on a show called The Philanthropist) does a great job.
I feel like I should say something about the women -- Atia, Julius’s niece, prominent among them. And Cleopatra, of course. Their roles are complex but they’re usually stuck in the domestic sphere, attempting to control the men and circumstances around them through sex, parties, and social snubs. It’s fun to watch, but in retrospect it’s easier to forget.
Rome received a lot of press in its heyday: it wasn’t nearly as popular as Deadwood, Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, but it was far more expensive that all of those shows. The sets for the Forum and the Avantine were the largest sets ever constructed for a TV show, on an Italian backlot. The money was well-spent: until I did some research, I assumed that the producers had simply taken over a town in, say, Croatia, and Romanized it within an inch of its life. It just looks real. If they ever do make a movie, which is a rumor floating around, it should look great on a big screen.
For all the cost and bluster, Rome got some flack for not being “sweeping” or “epic” enough. But it’s not supposed to be Gladiator for the small screen. Rather, it’s about the personalities involved in a battle that seems epic in retrospect, but at the time was a vivid, lived experience for a select group of powerful men and women. Also, the life of the “common man” (whoever he is) was typically dark, cramped, and dirty. Rome wasn’t a planned city, and alleys were far more common that wide boulevards and open spaces.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it wasn’t built by just one man engaging in some mythological Pax Romana or something like that. It was people with money and power wanting more money and more power, but it was also people with strong philosophies (Lucius, Cicero, and Cato among them) just trying to do what is right according to old Roman virtues. It’s also, of course, about the death of the virtuous against the greediness of others. But when isn’t that the story of civilization?
Four out of four togas.