HBO’s 12 episode series Rome Season 1 (2005) caught my attention because it seemed to hit the sweet spot of history, drama and some action that I enjoy. (With nearly all HBO series, the filming, production, and acting were top-notch. Also, with nearly all HBO series of late, it was appalling in terms of language, nudity, and misuse of sexuality. The violence and blood shed were not for the faint of heart. So be forewarned that this is not a “family series”, “general audience” series or one for overly-sensitive dispositions.)
Rome Season 1 is basically good historical fiction. That is, real historical events, dates and personalities intertwined with fictional characters for artistic liberty. As with any history of Rome —Kingdom, Republic or Empire— the artistic liberties, which these fictional characters bring, are not really necessary to add color to the subject matter. Nevertheless, they ground the story well. The historical details of the accuracy of Rome Season 1 are sure to be challenged but the general outline is solid.
A basic historical sketch…
Rome Season 1 focused on the Late Republic (49 –44 B.C.) in which a Civil War brought about the ascendancy of Gaius Julius Caesar (Cirián Hinds).
The First Triumvirate — an informal one —consisted of Crassus, Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) and Caesar. Pompey was in Rome while Caesar covered himself with military glory in Gaul for 10 years. At the time Crassus had a military command in Syria and so does not appear in Rome Season 1. In any event Crassus’ influence had faded by 49 B.C..
Pompey declared himself sole consul and made moves against Julius Caesar. As we all know, Caesar returned to Rome —crossing the Rubicon January 10, 40 B.C.— with his loyal legions and Pompey fled to Greece and then to Egypt. Porcius Cato (Karl Johnson) and other loyal to the Republic joined Pompey. Pompey was eventually decapitated. The Roman Republic was effectively replaced with an autocratic ruler in the person of Caesar with Mark Antony (James Purfoy) as his right hand man.
Caesar was appointed “dictator for life”, named the month of Quintilis after himself (July), and had a Senate that acted with abject sycophancy but from many accounts passed sensible legislation. Conspirators (Marcus Junius Brutus (Tobias Menzias), Cassius (Guy Henry), and others) who wanted to rid the republic of the perceived tyrant would stab Julius Caesar 23 times on March 15, 44 B.C. and Casear would die at the foot of Pompey’s statue in the theater in Rome.
Rome, the series…
HBO’s Rome was surprisingly not about military battles and battle strategies. I had expected a more classic “swords and sandals” type of adventure. Instead, it focused on the domestic life of two Roman legionaries (Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson)) and the domestic life of two noble Roman families: the Junii and the Julii.
There were many subplots to go around and keep things interesting as a sort of domestic drama. Lucius Vorenus was a pleb, a Roman legionary, who was eventually appointed a magistrate by Caesar and then later, a Senator. Titus Pullo was the most schizophrenic character in this series. At times he was “comic relief” as a bumbler; a tragic hero; a villain. His personality contrasted markedly with that of Vorenus, who played the "virtuous" legionary, although they were the best of buddies at times.
The matriarchs of the Julii and Junii, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker) and Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan), were always at odds with one another. The Julii were naturally aligned with Julius Casear since he was of their family. The Junii, including Marcus Brutus, were aligned with Pompey. Atia’s son Octavian (Max Pirkis) was Julius Caesar’s adopted son although Caesar was Octavian's great uncle in fact. Atia’s daughter and Octavian’s older sister, Octavia (Kerry Condon), tried to maintain the peace between the families.
A most disturbing incest scene between Octavian and Octavia was way over-the-top. I’m unsure if this has any basis as history. The hanging of the King of the Gauls before Caesar was just as over-the-top while were on this topic.
Rome Season 1 hinted that Caesarion may not have in fact been the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra (Lindsey Marshal). Cleopatra deposed her younger brother Ptolemy XIII in Egypt. She knew that Caesar had trouble having children and so arranged to be with a Roman legionary (Pullo) before being with Caesar. It was part of her “power play.” I’m unsure as well if this has any basis as history.
Rome Season 1 was a good look into the daily life of Roman legionaries, Roman nobility and the slave classes. It was edifying that Roman of all classes took religion seriously in their daily life. Jupiter, Juno and other gods were naturally called upon and sacrificed to often. There were some matter-of-fact appearance of Jews as well. It was a good look into the proto-evangelium of these pre-Christian peoples.
Rome Season 2 (2007) will be out on DVD soon. It is sure to focus on the succession to Julius Caesar: Octavian (his legal son, later to be called Augustus), Mark Antony, Caesarion (his other son), Cleopatra and others battling for control of Rome. HBO cancelled this series because of low ratings, from what I understand, after the second season.
Related Posts: Fall of the Roman Empire