So on Saturday I bought the first season of Rome on DVD and by tonight I had watched all twelve episodes and let me just say, wow! I managed to catch the first two episodes while rooming with Matt but then I sort of lost track of the show and ended up, as I am doing more and more often these days, decided to wait for the DVD release to actually watch the show. I wonder if this is ever going to become the dominant paradigm in entertainment? I am aware of a vocal minority in sci fi fandom, or what I like to call the Harlan Ellison Memorial Ghetto Fandom, which claims the direct to DVD market is a viable market for television shows, but I do not know how much leverage this school of thought has elsewhere in the entertainment community. As a brief aside, in this not so brief aside, is there anything in sci fi fandom which is not vocal?
Okay, back to the point which is Rome rocked my socks off! In the interest of full disclosure you should all know I took two years of Latin in high school and I was VERY good at it. I think there must be a genetic predisposition for linguistics in my familiy. Beyond my general fascination with language and my ability to bend and twist the English language to within an inch of its life, my brother speaks Korean, my dad spoke Russian, and my mom beats the pants off of all of us at Scrabble. Gah! Another side-track. It should come as no surprise that I have had a heck of a time concentrating on things today. The point you need to take away from this is that I took Latin in high school and competed at a fairly high level in the JCL meets in history and mythology so this show is right up my alley and could have ended up being a HUGE disappointment.
These twelve episodes cover the eight years from Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix at Alesia in 52 B.C. to Caesar’s murder in the forum in 44 B.C. That is a lot of history to cram into less than twelve hours of television. Hmm, that makes Rome sound a bit dry and lecture-y and believe you me, it is anything but. This version of Rome owes less to the sword and sandal epics of yesteryear than it does to Carnival, that’s a Brazilian Mardi Gras for you plebes, as designed by Machiavelli. This Rome is bawdy, bloody, and brilliant, with heavy emphasis on the bloody. There are some cringe-worthy scenes in here that could give Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart a run for its money. This coupled with the amount of nookie going on has caused a bit of an uproar over the series however I wasn’t really bothered by it. Of course we all know me so, as they say, your mileage may vary. (I did wonder how they got anything done with as much…oh yeah, slaves, never mind.)
As for the historical aspect of things I feel the producers and writers did a very good job of balancing history with the needs of the story. The one major departure from history is the placement of Julia’s death in 52 B.C. rather than 54 B.C. Julia was Caesar’s daughter from his first marriage, and only legitimate child, and Pompey’s wife. This coupled with the absence of Crassus, who was the third of the triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, from the series makes it appear as though Pompey went from being Caesar’s friend to his enemy the moment Julia died. In the series Caesar even comments to Mark Antony that Julia’s death was the moment when Pompey turned against him. By 56 B.C. the Triumvirate was already starting to fray under the weight of Caesar’s growing popularity and the fact that they had accomplished the initial goals of getting land for Pompey’s veterans and whatever it was that Crassus’ clients wanted. There was no reason for the three men to remain allied. Then with Julia’s death and 54 B.C. and Crassus’ death in 53 B.C. coupled with Caesar’s ever increasing popularity and Pompey’s own political naiveté served to push Pompey to ally himself with the Optimates. It seems Pompey’s conversion to the Optimate cause was complete by 52 B.C. when he rebuffed Caesar’s offer of his grandniece Octavia’s hand in marriage and instead married Cornelia Metella, the daughter of one of Caesar’s greatest enemies in the Senate. After that Pompey pursued a legislative agenda which made it clear he was gunning for Caesar. While the causal effect the show imbues Julia’s death with may be historically correct to an extent, there are other events which pushed Pompey into his decision. I understand why the timeline was compressed and the situation simplified.
The other historical change that has elicited some discussion is the use of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. While both these names appear in Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic Wars) there is no other information about them therefore all of their actions through the series are fabrications. Of course since these are the two characters which provide the point of view for the average citizen of Rome, they are the characters which provide the relatable point of view for the viewers. These necessary roles are ably filled by Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo) and Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus) and there are times where these two almost steal the show and turn it into Lethal Weapon Episode One. Stevenson’s outspoken, hard-drinking legionnaire provides a perfect foil to McKidd’s laconic straight-man and both of their performances are enjoyable and hit all the marks they need to hit.
To be honest I enjoyed all of the performances in this series however Ciaran Hinds as Caesar, James Purefoy as Mark Antony, and Max Pirkis as Octavian really stood out. After watching the first few episodes I had to run and consult IMDB on both Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy. I knew I had previously seen James Purefoy in something but it took the internet to remind me that he played Prince Edward in A Knight’s Tale, which, in my opinion, is a grossly underrated movie. In this outing Purefoy brings a level frat-boy hedonism to the role of Mark Antony which is generally missing, particularly from performances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. By turns his Antony is a soldier’s soldier, plain-spoken and straight-forward, and a shrewd politician able to navigate the alleys of power with uncanny ease and Purefoy manages to deliver a performance in which these characteristics do not seem to contradict one another. His Antony also has a boyish charm about him which made me like him despite some of his rather uncouth behavior.
In contrast to this is Ciaran Hinds’ Caesar. Whereas Antony is boisterous, Caesar is almost taciturn and even when Hinds’ expresses an emotion it is done in a brief moment and if you blink you’ll miss it. Like Purefoy, I was convinced I had seen Hinds before and I was 100% certain it had been in a Star Trek role. I don’t think I could have been more wrong; I would have seen him in Munich and The Phantom of the Opera but no Star Trek. (And that’s too bad, too. I think he would make an awesome Vulcan or Romulan.)
Then there is Octavian as played by Max Pirkis. For me Octavian is the most interesting character in the bunch as he is the one who ultimately emerges from this period of civil war and becomes the Emperor of Rome and here we are seeing his first steps into the political arena. I suspect my interest in the character had less to do with Pirkis’ performance than it did how the character was written, however Octavian comes off as a bit of a prodigy in the series and that sort of character can be hard to imbue with humanity, a task I feel Pirkis excelled at.
I think by now you get the point. I really enjoyed this show and highly recommend it with one caveat: Remember that for as much as we like to think the Romans were like us, much of their history, this bit included, exists before the rise of Christianity and Judeo-Christian morality as the standard behavior for western civilization so they will do thing we find shocking and abhorrent without so much as batting an eyelash.