I saw this when it first came out back in 2006, but now that I have been reading up on the subject, I tried another viewing. It was a co-production between the BBC and HBO, with mostly British actors in the lead, and filmed at Rome’s cinecitta studios, with a host of local actors and crew. The set was huge, and by the end of it had its own menagerie of cockroaches, rats and birds of prey, so realistic had it become. It is superbly researched, and littered with characers that you soon love to hate. It is wonderful that, even though the main characters are Rome’s male rulers, there are some fantastic female monsters scheming behind the scenes. There is a scene when young Augustus is talking to Rome’s matrons, praising them for their high morals, and for setting such high standards for the men, whilst interspersed with his mother and others showing what monsters they really were.
The trouble with the history of Rome is that we know too much about it. Or we think we do. They invaded everywhere, the soldiers wore dresses and they built a big wall to keep the Scots out. And they left a lot of big white buildings that architects and archaeologists like a lot.
That’s why the series is so great. It totally upends much of what I thought I knew about the empire. The streets of Rome were full of animal waste, many citizens lived in crowded tenements and the place was full of colour and ocassional rude grafitti. The city became one of the many characters in the series, which focused on the return of Julius Cesar to Rome, where he declared himself dictator before being murdered by the senators. The second series covers the rise of Cesar’s appointed heir, Cesar Augustus, and Marc Antony’s time in Egypt with Cleopatra.
The series thus covers some of the most interesting and violent periods of the empire, but it is written in such a way that we get a good cross section of the citizens, with two soldiers featuring as they try to fit into civilian life before being drawn back into the fray. Titus Pullo is a former slave with no delusions as to any grand future; his colleage, Lucius Vorenus married young and has risen rapidly through the ranks so has aspirations but his life as a soldier leaves him poorly equipped for the niceties of society. There is a lot of manly banter between the two, and there is also tragedy. Vorenus discovers his wife was unfaithful to him in his long absence, and causes her death; Pullo falls in love with a slave, gives her her freedom in the hope that his feelings would be reciprocated, but when she declares her love for another slaves, he is so enraged he kills the man. His is the most interesting character, because he is constantly struggling with his feelings, trying to understand the politics, but at heart he is a thoroughly decent and often funny man.
There is also a wonderful sense of how the city worked, from the senate down to the slums. The pervasive presence and practice of the many religious cults are also shown well, even in the opening credits. You see a complicated, ritualised social life involving everyone.
There is some brilliant writing, great set pieces, and the sets and clothing are fantastic. The fall of Marc Anthony brings home how limited rule by force really is. when you train men to be such efficient fighters, what on earth do they do when peace comes?
But my favourite line came from Atticus, Augustus’s friend and a brilliant military strategist, when told he had to give up his lover as he was of humble birth. She accused him of not loving her, his reply was, ‘If you asked me to tear down the sky I would do it for you.’ Most writers would die to come up with lines like that.