An excellent introduction to the reign of the Roman emperor Commodus. (Includes some spoilers.)
The six episodes show the story of Commodus, a Roman emperor who ruled as co-emperor with his father Marcus Aurelius from 177 until Aurelius’ death in 180, and then alone as the Roman Emperor from 180 until he was assassinated in 192. Episodes cover what happens when Marcus Aurelius was rumored to have died (distances sometimes led to delayed or garbled reports); another powerful man, Avidius Cassius, tries to take over. Then Marcus Aurelius does die and Commodus becomes emperor. Commodus has to deal with treachery from his nearest and dearest; finally he decides to prove himself to the people by engaging in gladiatorial combat himself.
Netflix’s docuseries is more history than fiction, although some parts have been dramatized. It does a good job of giving viewers the sense of the pressures on a Roman emperor and those closest to him. This series is particularly useful for fans of Gladiator who want to better understand the real characters of Marcus Aurelius, his son Commodus, and Commodus’ elder sister Lucilla.
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood is easy watching, which means you don’t need to pay super close attention to everything. This may not suit people who want to be on the edge of their seats the entire time. On the other hand, I found it both relaxing and educational. It also shows how empires can crumble from within, a topic that seems pertinent today. There are not as many plot twists as you have in most series – this is supposed to approximate real life – but enough twists to justify choosing Commodus as the subject of a docuseries.
The series has relatively few characters; I sense that reality had many more, just as I sense that reality was far more complicated than depicted. I expect there are several reasons for these two choices. Historians may not know all the details, as this period has not come down to us with the same level of minutiae as the times of the Julio-Claudian Caesars (celebrated by contemporary, classical as well as more recent authors and dramatists – Julius Caesar, Cicero, Seneca and Plutarch, Robert Graves, Colleen McCullough, William Shakespeare and Bruno Heller, to name a few). The creators may have decided to keep it simple for the audience, who could get lost with too many problems and too many characters with their strange names. Also, the budget may have only permitted a certain level of detail.
The series makes good use of a narrator and commentary from historians. The latter bring up issues and questions that have not been resolved, or point out different perspectives. I appreciated this. In fact, I would have liked more, as I was a bit frustrated by unanswered questions. Commodus chose to end the war with Germania, despite the advice of many, including his dying father, and I would have liked to hear the arguments for both sides and what happened as a result of his decision.
Some of the series may feel slow. We are so accustomed to watching incredibly choreographed, spectacular fight scenes, that an “ordinary” fight scene may feel dull. On the other hand, Commodus’ fight in the Coliseum was, for the Romans, the Ultimate Reality Show.
Bits and pieces
The historians remind us that Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor to pass the position to a son in ninety years or so. Usually the emperor adopted someone, allowing him to choose someone worthy.
The commentators question how Marcus Aurelius, known for his wisdom, could choose his incompetent son for this position, but they did not mention how dangerous it would be for his family if he did not choose his son. When the emperor died, the new emperor usually killed off most of the old emperor’s family (unless possible to marry a female member; Faustina, Marcus Aurelius’ wife, was a daughter of the previous emperor). Also, Commodus was still young when his father died, so Aurelius may have still hoped for more development.
The music was excellent.
The credits were a little odd. Everyone was shown for every episode, even though several of the characters were dead by the third episode. On the other hand, the credits did help me learn who these people were, and to keep them straight. As the series’ goal seems educational, that’s OK.
I would have liked to learn more about the plague.
Commodus: See this? This is simple. Out there you stand before your enemy face to face. No tricks.
If you’re looking for the usual gripping series where you become totally invested in characters, which gives you an escape from the cares of the day, this will disappoint. On the other hand, if you are eager to learn more about history and satisfy your curiosity, this series is very good, although sometimes a bit too simple. As I try to judge shows according to what they are trying to accomplish, I appreciated the effort, and I hope Netflix uses the same approach to educate us about the reigns of other Roman emperors. Three gladiatorial swords out of four.
Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.