the HBO-BBC series
Season 1 2006 DVD box set

Lawrence Russell

Creators: Bruno Heller | John Milius | William J. MacDonald

Written by: Bruno Heller, John Milius, William J. MacDonald, David Frankel, Adrian Hodges, Alexandra Cunningham

Directed by: Michael Apted, Allen Coulter, Julian Farino, Jeremy Podeswa, Alan Poul, Mikael Salomon, Steve Shil, Alan Taylor, Tim van Patten

Rome: the HBO-BBC seriesCast: Ciaran Hinds (Caesar), James Purefoy (Antony), Max Pirkis (Octavian), Kevin McKidd (Vorenus), Ray Stevenson (Pullo), Polly Walker (Atia), Lindsay Duncan (Servilia), Kerry Condon (Octavia), Indira Varma (Niobe), Kenneth Cranham (Pompey), David Bamber (Cicero), Tobias Menzies (Brutus), Lee Boardman (Timon) et. al.

BBC Rome

fiction struggling to be truth

II At times ROME looks like a soap opera, an absurdist view of life today with history as a stylistic rather than an archaeological fact. Roman vulgarity is indistinguishable from contemporary vulgarity in manners, speech and action. Life in the count-down of the "Before Christ" era (52--43 BC) is occultic and tabloid, and as bloody as the six o'clock News. Sex is the greatest obsession, even when you think politics are, or even the concomitants such as war and economic advantage. Voyeurism is a way of life, "express yourself" the only real credo. Like today, just about anything goes, although in this production paedophilia is left in the shadows, a casualty of contemporary ambiguity and the marketing concerns of Prime Time TV. But as for the rest... hey, it's full frontal.

Sound interesting? It is interesting, even if students of history will carp at the Anglican revisionism. When you measure this BBC-HBO series against the great Fellini Satyricon, say, the cultural appropriation/deviation is obvious. The secondary characters -- the full fiction characters -- could be out of Coronation Street or Cracker. Is this an aesthetic failing? Not necessarily. A creative writing cliche is that you should write only what you know or what your audience knows. The real bitching will be about the primary characters, those Roman icons who exist in historical fact, such as Gaius Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Cleopatra, Pompey Maximus, Brutus, Cicero et. al., those stalwarts of your early school history classes. Some of you even studied them in Latin... if not, for sure you read the Ladybird profile of Julius Caesar. You know these people like you know your relatives and your catechism.

The 12 episodes of Season 1 of ROME are primarily the story of Julius Caesar, although they in no way come close to telling the complete story of this amazing man. Forget that he stole 3000 pounds of gold from the Capitol, concealed this major crime by substituting gilded bronze in its place. Forget that he bribed his way into the office of Chief Pontiff and later Consul. Forget that he plundered the votive offerings of the temples of the defeated, although he was a priest of the Temple of Jupiter. Forget his homosexual escapades, bi-sexual delinquencies. Forget that he plotted continuously against the Republic. The script writers did and maybe they should, as it might all be hearsay. After all, history is a fiction struggling to be truth.

Yet... the story as presented could've benefitted by at least one motivating incident to explain his egregious ambition. For example, the famous dream wherein he rapes his own mother, then, after consulting the soothsayers, adopts their interpretation that he would conquer the earth [our universal Mother]. This would help, as his actions would then seem less the ambiguous moves of a nice guy who really loves people. After all, in this Anglican version, Caesar is not really a tyrant but a misunderstood democrat. He's a populist, just like Clinton, although he could easily be written as Nixon.

the sentimental ghosts of Charles Dickens & Sid Vicious

II Episode 1. 52 BC. Caesar has just defeated Vencingetorix, the King of Gauls, has him prisoner, makes him kiss the Standard, a gold eagle which shortly thereafter is stolen. While he has been sending wagon loads of booty back to Rome, the jealous senators consider this Gaullic war and Caesar's action to be "illegal" and order him to disband his legions. Of course he doesn't and soon crosses the Rubicon river (or stream, as shown here) and marches on Rome. His opponents, led by Pompey, flee the city, hoping to out-manoeuver Caesar at a later date when his money and popularity evaporate.


So much for the facts. The rest of the action is fiction, much of it effective and clever. Such as: following the story of the "13th Legion" and two of its soldiers, the steady Centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and his loyal party-hearty Legionaire Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). As Caesar's fortune rises, so do theirs. These are the high-identification figures for today's international TV audience. Vorenus is almost Christian in his values, and Pullo is like a wayward brother who really has a heart of gold. They recover the Eagle, and they rescue young Octavian from Pompey's hired thugs, the "blue Spaniards". When they return to Rome, we follow their fortunes as they try to adjust to peace time outside the Legion... and they do have problems. Yet somehow both remain at the centre of the action (by the scriptwriters' artifice). Just like a decom vet returning to Coronation Street, Vorenus has problems with his pretty wife Niobe (Indira Varma), and Pullo manages to get himself messed up by a pretty slave girl... at the same time slitting a few throats along the way. Ah, it's life among the plebs longing to be bourgeois. Forget the history lesson here. This is tabloid fiction and good laughs are had by all. The sentimental ghosts of Charles Dickens & Sid Vicious sit behind the writing.

II Caesar is played by the Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds, and in this interpretation he plays him well. Hinds looks the part, talks the part, walks within the benevolent persona of the dictator with just a hint of menace. The sensibility is very modern, projecting a civilized and pragmatic leader. The brutality that exalts his power is stage managed, so that he plays good cop to the generic Roman bad cop in pursuit of imperial grandeur. This Caesar delegates crucifixions rather than orders them, so he's always seen as the merciful warrior. While the Hinds Caesar isn't adverse to using force, he prefers the politics of bribery, delegation and reconciliation. He's too big to hold petty grudges or avenge big-time treachery (mostly), as if these things are part of an agreed political game for which everyone has rehearsed.

You can see why he goes easy on Pompey (related by marriage) and Brutus (his nephew), although you might wonder about Cicero, the real intellectual behind the opposition. Omitted from the script is the fact that they corresponded, and that the Hellenist Cicero admired Caesar's oratory, considered him the greatest public speaker of their times... yes, even though he conspired in Caesar's eventual murder. Historians tell us it was a personal grudge, actually, as at one point Caesar had Cicero demoted to the plebeian classes. Thus Ciaran Hinds becomes Caesar as the tragic hero rather than Caesar the homicidal megalomaniac who would be King.

sex as politics: every woman's husband and every man's wife

Love? Caesar loves... to a point. His wife is described as "a species of statue" by his male secretary, so he's given a semblance of moral license here. While Suetonius in his touchstone work The Twelve Caesars suggests that Caesar was a womanizer, here he is played as no licentious sexist pig. Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) is his mistress, and the mother of Brutus, the man forever associated with the assassination of Caesar. While she has a husband, her position is also precarious, seasonally subject to the violent politics of the time. Shortly after their reconciliation (when Caesar arrives in town), pornographic graffiti depicting the couple appear on walls in the vicinity of the Forum, and Caesar, stung by this ridicule, ditches her.

Caesar was "every woman's husband and every man's wife," Cato the Elder said, but here he's just a man who digs power more than love.

Hell hath no fury like a woman's scorn is the theme followed. Servilia goes voodoo in the temple, puts a curse on her absconding lover... and Atia, who she discovers was behind the graffiti. This misfortune provides the most personal of all the motives that drive Brutus away from his uncle and into the plot.

Atia -- Caesar's social operative in the city -- tries to compensate (and protect her own position) by passing on her daughter Octavia as a "companion" who becomes in fact a lesbian substitute. Typically, the line between expediency and humiliation is a shifting marker. The affection between Servilia and Octavia is shown as genuine, despite the politics of the situation. In fact, a time comes when Atia engages one of her lovers (a horse dealer) to dispatch a gang of thugs to ambush Servilia in the street as she's being transported in a curtained litter. The litter is over-turned, the slaves put to the sword, and Servilia left to crawl in the filth and blood in an ugly, public humiliation.

So much for the gentle spirit and the feminine mystique. And while intrigue is their forte, the Roman women here are shown to be good with a knife too.

recoil or yawn

II Marc Antony. Maybe you recall Marlon Brando's engaging version of this playboy swine who, in history, was actually related to Julius Caesar. All accounts have him as a dissipated individual, and this is the position assumed by the script writers. In 50 BC he became a tribune of the plebs and went to Rome to represent the interests of Caesar... and this is shown in the opening episodes with effective dramatic clarity. On his way to town he stops off to shag a shepherd girl beneath a tree as his detachment waits nearby, watching with varying states of amusement and impatience.

James Purefoy as Marc AntonyVoyeurism? Spectator sex is the most obvious modernism of this BBC-HBO production which treats us to many such incidents of chic porn during the 12 episodes, and Marc Antony is the star in a number of them. It certainly helps to keep you alert for the history lesson. James Purefoy is the actor, and he must've had fun. As Antony, he has the same submerged malevolence as Richard Burton, that five o'clock shadow of the soul. He has the engaging nastiness of a born predator -- you never know if someone is going to have his throat slit or get it up the ass.

In Rome, he sets himself up in Pompey's villa (abandoned in his hurried exit from the city), passes the time in extortion and violent sex. One scene has two naked women sword fighting as Antony lolls on the bed, urges them on, eager to lick their bloody wounds. You might see this vampirism as gratuitous sadism, or you might see it as a nifty sociological truth about the effects of hand-to-hand combat on the mind of a Roman war veteran. However, whether you recoil or yawn, there's no doubt about the effectiveness of this character who, as the number two, plays bad cop to Caesar's good cop.

a large penis is always welcome

Atia. This is a very contemporary character -- the single mother who is an excellent example of the maxim that politics is the manipulation of the strong by the weak. She too is a relative of Julius Caesar, although this doesn't mean that she's secure in her position as a leading aristo hostess in the city of the seven hills. Atia pimps not only herself and various trophies but also her daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon), whom she forces to divorce her husband (who she loves) in order to marry Pompey (as a gift from Caesar). Sadly, Pompey merely has public sex with Octavia and then marries someone else. Of course these in-house liaisons and forced marriages were normal protocols within the tight aristocratic class of Rome, used as political hedges and clan breeding formats. Atia's charming ruthlessness is a thing to behold, and without doubt Polly Walker's character is one of the most interesting in the drama, unshackled by fact, freed by fiction.

Polly Walker as Atia

Brutus. A pivotal character in the story, yet the interpretation here perhaps leaves him under developed and/or under utilized. Torn between familial loyalty and the special interests of his friends, he has the potential of a Hamlet, but here drifts between the two camps like a horse without a rider. Tobias Menzies wears the saddle.

Octavian. This is the most successful character in the drama... because, while we know a lot about him later in life as the Emperor Augustus (Season II or III?), his childhood leaves plenty of scope for creative fiction. As the great nephew of Caesar, his education in the ways of the Roman zeit geist is a complete amalgam of his mother and his uncle.

Although still a boy when we see him in Episode 1, his ruthlessness is demonstrated early on when he kills one of his kidnappers with a club. His intellectual grasp of the politics of the Senate, the Roman street and his own family is clever and audacious, and a perfect fit for the man who would one day become the great Augustus, the Emperor of the Roman world. He's good with the books, not bad in a brothel, and perfectly capable of engineering the murder of a Roman citizen in order to protect Lucius Vorenus from finding out about his wife's indiscretion.

Murder as altruism -- the reality of this action can slip past you in the speed of the montage, especially when you like the murderers. Incest? We get that as well here, passed off as an act of familial love. As for Caesar's famous affliction -- epilepsy -- Octavian is able to keep it as a secret, despite his youth. Great character, great new young actor, Max Pirkis.

when you ride with destiny

II One of the best dramatizations occurs when Vorenus and Pullo are shipwrecked en route to fight Pompey's army (in Greece) and end up on a sandbar island with little hope of rescue. Vorenus notices the floating corpses of fellow legionnaires in the surf and uses them as floats for a raft, thus escaping the island. This leads to a major use of "coincidence" in the scripting, when they just happen to encounter Pompey on a beach where he's encamped for the night, en route for Egypt in disguise. While not impossible -- there are no coincidences when you ride with Destiny -- it certainly makes plot points easier to map. Vorenus & Pullo seem to buffoon their way into history as if Cervantes runs the story board. Still, the action is good, is kept visceral. But with such lengthy dramatic absences from Rome, no wonder Vorenus's wife lives as if in a parallel universe....

Cleopatra. Yes, she shows up, a short-haired pussywhipper who looks like a graduate of the heroin chic school of modelling. For some reason, she's omitted from the cast at the HBO Rome website as if she's too hot for even them. In style, she's the most revisionist of all the characters in sensibility. You might meet her in a L.A. boutique or a Paris trance club. This interpretation of the Egyptian queen who almost destroyed imperial Rome by bedding both Caesar and Marc Antony is certainly a pornographic one, and one that will divide Old School from New School in terms of acceptability. Mind you, if Old School has hung in there long enough to see her Triple X romp with the Legionaire Titus Pullo -- Episode 8 -- then maybe Old School is past textural fundamentalism. This aside, the Egyptian scenes are well-written and staged, with great costumes, sets and sight-lines.

Cicero. If you ever have the occasion to read it, you'll see a clear obsession with Caesar running through some of Cicero's correspondence which teeters between admiration and fear, and while this fear is usually read as Cicero's fear of tyranny, there's something more to it. In this dramatization, this character is the most unrealized, especially in view of how much we know about him. Here he's portrayed as an ineffectual hanger-on, with none of the incredible forensic talent and verbal brilliance he displayed in fact. Missed opportunity here, people.

Italian light

The producers/directors made the best of the tonal lighting of the ancient world. The oblique back light, the sense of the pre-electric... the natural light of Italy, the pastels of the eastern Mediterranean etc. While Fellini's view of the Roman world is a landscape view, emphasizing the mid-field and the panorama, this view is closer, photographed for the small screen, a sequence of back-lit interiors, alleys, plazas. Even when landscapes are used, they are often framed in tight by walls, trees, aqueducts, or seen through windows and arches, using vertical rather than linear perspective. There's a beautiful look to it all, no question. The Italian light has that old Hellenic idealism about it, that softening of the harsh edges of reality. Marco Pontecorvo is the cinematographer, obviously another in the line of Italian greats.

The directors. Well, there are a number of them, just as there are several writers. Michael Apted unfortunately directed Gorillas in the Mist... but he also directed Gorky Park. And now, luckily, he has Rome in his CV. Bruno Heller wrote (or co-wrote) eight of the episodes, so he has to take most of the credit for the attitude in the British dialogue. He's also listed as one of the series "creators", so if the series stank, he'd be the first to fall on his sword.

John Milius (one of the triumvir producer/creators) wrote/directed such classics as Red Dawn & Big Wednesday... and Apocalypse Now. So some good old American violence is put to good use here (they should consider bringing in Michael Mann for an episode down the line). William J. MacDonald -- not to be confused with Peter McDonald, who directed Rambo III, in case you think the style fits -- directed Episode 8, which features the raunchy Egyptian sequences. So these are experienced Hollywood professionals mixing it up with UK stage pros and Italian techs.

The writing is pretty good. You wonder why no Latin is used, the odd phrase here and there for flavour, remind us that this is Italy, after all, not Chelsea. But most people could probably care less. Shaped by 4 centuries of King James I rhetoric and the blank verse of Shakespeare, British dramatists do have a cachet when it comes to historical subjects, and the UK writer Bruno Heller appears to have carried the most of the writing. If you compare Rome to another HBO series, the western soap opera Deadwood, you can see that they march in lock-step in terms of visual and verbal sex and violence. Rome with its sober Royal Shakespearean pedigree is far better than Deadwood with its Yankee wise-ass cool, yet both are revisionist. If all history is "revisionist" because we can only see it in terms of the present tense, so be it.

The world view is left-of-centre, a social democrat's guide to the Roman world. The bad guys are clearly those 300 or so aristocrats who make up the Senate, in particular those patricians who backed Pompey and later murdered Caesar. Cato is written up to look like a fool, like some nasty English clergyman who gets elected by forging votes from the death register. Cicero, one of the most brilliant men of the period, is rendered as little more than a spear carrier. To be sure, an attempt is made with the character of Brutus to move beyond an ideological stereotype, and Pompey is only as venal as he has to be... indeed, we feel sympathy for him as he and his wife and children attempt to escape to Egypt. But he's rendered as weak, lacking true sexual karma. Caesar has the pop-culture mojo. Like Clinton or Kennedy, he can be forgiven while Nixon remains a criminal, LBJ a pariah.

religion & the rebel

Julius Caesar claimed descendancy from Ascanius, and therefore from Venus, ergo, he was a legitimate patrician and a chief priest. A pontifex maximus was a lifetime appointment, carried great political significance. You do see him in the temple, communing with Jupiter, and other characters making offerings to their personal gods. You also see "the reading of the signs" at various junctures, and while some Romans are devout believers, there are instances of artifice and cynicism. When Caesar visits the auguries (a committee of priestly clairvoyants in shabby togas), they say the "sign" will be the appearance of the birds of peace... and indeed the day he is proclaimed emperor, a flock of doves is released from a hidden cloister in the temple. Divine intervention is stage-managed if the politics are auspicious.

It's interesting to see how this aspect of Roman living is dramatized, the idea of personal gods within a pantheon. Everyone has a shrine in the house, or has access to one in the street. You wonder if Christianity (when it arrived in Rome) was a fad that suited democracy, a plebeian checkmate against the old gods of the patricians. While there's no hint of this in Season I, it might come by Season 3. The struggle between the plebs and the patricians was 300 hundred years old and still going when Caesar emerged.

© LR 8/06

"Rome boasts the largest standing film set in the world, comprising five acres of backlot and six soundstages at the world-famous Cinecittà Studios", says the BBC website. The sturdy HBO DVD box set comes with an extra DVD with interviews, production details, off-set, out-of-character clips, etc, but you can find out further details about the production at the dedicated BBC and HBO sites.


Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2006