Being a review of HBO's Rome (season 1)

by Julian Lynch

Julian Lynch proves once and for all that ancient history is a niche pleasure but everybody loves lesbians.
HMV vouchers are Bad Things. They are Bad Things because 20 pound's worth of vouchers make you go to HMV and buy 50 pound's worth of stuff and gubbins you didn't want and won't look at again. However, this year's trip was unusual in that unearthed something I genuinely treasure: season 1 of HBO's historical drama series: Rome. I'd watched a little of Rome on BBC 2 when it was shown, and had enjoyed it then - but watching the complete series has made me fall in love with it. This has caused me to develop a great melancholy however, for I have no one to squee about said drama series to. Jen, my usual first port of call when I need to enthusiastically yip at someone, has little patience when I'm yipping about ancient history (for some reason it's a niche pleasure), and the few other people I have launched test-yips at have tended to respond with cries of, "Rome? I heard that was a big ol' pile o' smelly shite!" So naturally, I decided to sit down and write a piece praising my celluloid paramour...

But then I thought about it, and I decided that the nay-sayers were right. Rome is rubbish. Utter tosh. I still love it, and always will, but my love for it is a dirty, sinful love; derived from motives not present in the normal man. Watching Rome is something I must always enjoy furtively and alone, like crying at the end of Spartacus or eating two dinners in one evening. Here's why:

When I watch a historical drama, I look for a few things. First among these is respect for the period. By that, I don't mean a slavish adherence to historical 'reality', but rather that the general feel of the period is captured and that as much of the historical context is left as intact as possible. If you happen to throw in a few little bits and bobs that show you've read the sources on the period I'm happier still. Rome does this, and it does it well. There are dozens of little 'accurate' moments to please the anal, (I remember getting bizarre looks when I fell about squeeing that they'd given the Flamen Dialis the right hat), and the general 'feel' of the events and the characters match the way I tend to feel having studied the period. There are also a few events straight out of Plutarch; the death of Pompey the Great, the manner of Caesar's assassination, other such moments; which makes me smile and feel like I'm in some sort of club with special, secret knowledge.

The second thing I look for is the 'keepin' it real' factor - an attempt by the writers to write about people doing stuff rather than marble columns: something to differentiate what's supposed to be a drama from a high-budget documentary or Die Hard with pedimental statues. Rome manages that too by borrowing a device seen in the works of Kurosawa and George Lucas: juxtaposing the goings on in the high political world with a plotline concerning a couple of plebs caught up in the larger events. In Rome's case our R2D2 and C3PO are legion veterans Titus Pullo and Lucius Verenus. Pullo and Verenus are the real stars of the story, getting the bulk of screen time, getting the most emotionally weighty scenes, and constantly getting involved in the bigger background story - Julius Caesar's rise to power and assassination. The writers also do a good job of humanising the historical figures Octavian is done well, Caesar isn't hero worshipped for once, Cicero is so spot on it's hard not to laugh... all in all I'm a happy man.

But here's the problem. These two Good Things are outweighed by the Bad Things. Bad Things of more interest to the conventional viewer than historical authenticity. The reason I still love Rome is 'cos frankly ancient history makes me wet - hell, I even enjoyed Alexander. In fact I have it on DVD. And have watched it more than once. Many more times than once. This love of anything with men in skirts tends to make me overlook glaring problems. Problems like these:

1) The acting is... patchy. At moments, it's pretty good: the actor playing Brutus manages to tell you everything you need to know about him with the accent he delivers his first line in, which is pretty impressive. Some of the extras are seriously dodgy though, and a few of the characters have accents that shout 'I went to Eton and Rada!' rather than 'I'm a Roman!'. I don't find it to be a glaring problem, but I'm probably too forgiving. Also, a couple of people act with their eyebrows and nothing else the slave girl Pullo falls in love with has two expressions: my eyebrows feel bewilderment!' and my eyebrows feel angry! Grrrr!'.

2) At some point in the design process, someone must have said:

"Hey lads... all this Roman stuff is great. I love it. But it's all a bit... dull. People might think it's a documentary! More importantly, marble doesn't give anyone a stiffie! But I have a solution!"

*gasps of amazement around the table, cries of "tell us Pete" and "got any more weed?"*

"What we do is have lots and lots of boobies, gratuitous nudity, and neck stabbing! That will keep people's attention in between the boring plotty bits. And if anyone complains, we'll say it's all about portraying the Romans in a 'realistic' way!!! After all, everyone knows that Romans spent all day shagging and neck-stabbing."

At this point, someone pipes up:

"Wait! Won't we have to pay the actors more to get nekkid? And the neck stabbing special effect is pretty expensive... Let's just put the nudity and neck stabbing in the first couple of episodes, throw in some pointless lesbianism to grab everyone's attention, and then everyone will keep watching hoping for more, even if we don't give it to them!"

*cries of "Brilliant!" and "Give that man a spliff" and "hurrr-hurrr, I like girls who touch each other in places!"

It's not that I object to nudity or neck-stabbing. They have their place. The gladiator fight in episode 11, which is about the goriest thing I've ever seen on TV, works the better for the horror: it's a scene about how nasty what's going on actually is, not about thrills... but that doesn't go for most of the neck-stabbing, lead-based lipstick lesbians and nudity, which are clustered in the first four episodes of the 12, and come across as cheap thrills designed to get the audience hooked and the reviewers howling. I resent being manipulated so poorly, and the assumption of film-makers that (male) viewers are guided by that-which-resideth-in-the-trouser rather than any more sophisticated critical faculties. The lesbian affair especially is of minimal relevance to the plot, could be dispensed with entirely, makes no sense for either of the characters, comes purely from the writer's imagination rather than any historical sources, and in fact is barely referenced outside the one gratuitous sex-scene. In fact, for a series that flaunts it's realism, the sex scenes tend to have more in common with those you can view for $9.95 a month (check out our free gallery!) than real sex... although given that my knowledge of Roman lesbians and raping slaves is patchy, perhaps I'm being unfair to some mighty drive for authenticity.

3. Characters are sometimes a little... inconsistent. The best example is the future-Emperor Octavian, about 16 in the course of the series, who is generally well written and played: a cold hearted, calculating bastard, but a master politician. In the first episode, we see him striking slaves who touch him when he's upset, sneering at commoners, and generally being a snotty little brat. Titus Pullo, one of our plebeian main-characters, is hired to teach Octavian to fight with a sword (fine) and to do prostitutes (gratuitous nudity and glamorized sex with trafficked women ahoy!). During the course of the training, Pullo slaps him on the back and Octavian orders him not to and complains about his 'excessive familiarity'. Which makes you wonder what the hell is going on when in the course of the same conversation, Pullo brings a friend's private, family problem to Octavian, who responds (I summarise): "I know what to do! Let's go down the sewers together and torture some pleb I've never met by cutting his thumbs off, all to help you with your pal's sex life, because I suddenly like torturing people in sewers with the hoi polloi!"

What?? Why is it necessary to have Octavian torture some stranger for us to see he is a cold-hearted bastard? Surely there were better ways to prompt interaction between the two halves of the cast than to have them behave with wild inconsistency?

Similar issues come up with Caesar bedding Cleopatra - why he does it is never explained, the director preferring to do lingering shots of Cleopatra's legs. It's laziness really: either the plot demands something happen, but the writers don't have the time/inclination/talent to explore it, or the writers decide they need to expose some facet of a character's personality, but don't bother to do it with subtlety or believability. It's a shame, because these questionable moments exist in sharp relief to a multitude of truthful moments filled with emotional impact.

4. It's a touch misogynistic. A lot of women are faceless objects that exist only in so far as a male member of the cast is having sex with them (usually without their consent or after money has changed hands). The main female characters are, respectively: a sex-crazed, murderous, scheming bitch who suggests her son prostitute himself to Caesar for political capital; a scorned lover who decides to kill everyone who annoyed her because she got dumped by Caesar; a teenage girl who sleeps with her own brother to elicit information from him, all because of her manipulative affair with the above jilted lover; a slave girl who really, really quickly forgives Pullo for murdering her husband by smashing his brains out on a pillar presumably because she fancies him; the infidelitous wife of Verenus who has a child by another man and pretends it's actually her 14 year-old daughter's son; and Cleopatra, who is shown ordering men into her tent for sex and is continually doped up on what looks like opium. Most of the men are treated better, and they are invariably given more humanity. Even when their behaviour is worse than any of the female characters it is treated with sympathy: Mark Antony's rape of a woman he passes in the street goes by without criticism, implicit or otherwise. The woman seems barely traumatized by the experience, and disappears off screen afterwards with nary and complaint, while Antony raises both hands into the air like he's just scored the winning goal at the cup final and cheers.

So there it is. Season 2 is just starting on HBO, and I fully intend to watch it when it crosses the mighty Atlantic and besieges our shores with more unfulfilled promises of neck-stabbing and boobies. But I can't recommend anyone else watches it. In fact, I often feel dirty watching it... I find myself turning the sound down when people go past in case they hear me. And I'm right to feel dirty... there's just a little too much of Bad Girls or Footballer's Wives for it to really be a good series.

Watch it with me anyway though, won't you?

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Comments (go to latest)
Viorica at 16:28 on 2009-02-23
the slave girl Pullo falls in love with has two expressions: my eyebrows feel bewilderment!' and my eyebrows feel angry! Grrrr!'.

Hey now, she also has "My eyebrows feel mildly perturbed!"

But yes, this review is spot-on. I actually didn't mind the gratuitous violence and sex, mostly because I'd just come away from watching The Tudors, and was relieved to find a well-written historical drama for a change.

Re: misogyny. it's an interesting point. I actually saw the whole Niobe story arc as the writers pointing out how powerless Roman women were and how few options they had- she couldn't very well kick Vorenus out since she needed the money, and she knew that she and her child would be killed if she admitted to the affair, so she was essentially pushed into a corner. What I didn't like about that arc was adding Evander into the mix- it seemed like a cheap way of going "ah, but what she did was WRONG, because it was her SISTER'S HUSBAND, you see." I also disliked the portrayls of Clropatra- we've spent the past thousand or so years cleaning the dirt off of her image, did they really need to use her character for a centurion gangbang scene?
Wardog at 09:43 on 2009-02-25
I've only recently seen Rome but, yes, I agree - this review is spot on. I loved The Tudors too so I'm well into the "dirty" brand of costume drama. I like it because often epic historical dramas deal with enormously complicated political events that would hugely inaccessible if they didn't shoot them through a personal lens - this worked particularly well for The Tudors, I think, but also (mostly) works for Rome.

So far I'm only halfway through the first series but Cleopatra is in a centurion gangbang scene?!! What the fuck?!
Viorica at 17:10 on 2009-02-25
"Gangbang" might've been too strong a word. She offers herself to two of the centurions (no prizes for guessing who) so that she can have a baby and claim Caesar as the father. This kind of thing always irritates me in period dramas- when you're dealing with historically powerful women who were villified by the (male) historians of their time, you have something of a responsibility to present them as they really were, not as the sensationalists made them out to be.
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