HBO’s Rome is all business. In contrast to the classic Hollywood portrayals of ancient empires, the series’ dialogue is less focused on elaborate verbal theatrics than getting things done. An early scene shows the Senate debating on how to deal with the rising ambition of Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds). The great orator Cicero’s (David Bamber) lengthy, equivocating non-argument is promptly put in its place by plebian-born General Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), who says, “Perhaps you would have us climb a tree!” The series seems intent on showing what really happened behind the pretty words and colorful pageantry: the backroom deals, the casual brutality, and of course, the wild sex.
But the series, invested in something of a pragmatist’s view of history, doesn’t allow all this sordid material to devour itself. The curtain opens on the eve of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In his absence, members of the Senate have been pressuring his friend Pompey to side with them against Caesar, worried that his popularity with the plebians will upset the tenuous balance of power. Powerful egos are stoking the flames of class-based civil war, and there is little to stop it from getting ugly.
The problem of power games without ideological boundaries and the role of force in shaping society are not particularly original themes for this genre. But rarely have they been played this openly, with such grim seriousness. When Pompey cries, “It is the people that rule!” to a greedy Senate, he is not being sentimental, only realistic. What little emotion he affords himself is reserved for his one equal, namely Caesar. But even this proves too much, and the two turn on each other with the easy acceptance of necessity that befits their status. “Think I care what names are shouted in the streets?” Pompey mutters to Porcius (Karl Johnson), the Senate’s chief warmonger. “Nothing is more important,” he replies. And that settles it, eventually. The people rule in the way currency rules: they’re the bottom line. More than anything else, Caesar’s reluctant acknowledgement of this fact makes his victory inevitable.
Lest one fear the consequences of this sort of amoral political realism get a watered-down treatment, Rome proves steadfast—eager, even—in its refusal to skimp on detail. Even more than the lavish set and costume design, the occasionally bizarre and often cruel social rituals signal the specificity of this experience. And still, the bawdy outdoor plays and impromptu crucifixions are only separated from our own rituals by degrees.
The unblinking acceptance of such scandalous behavior makes it all the more dramatic. Caesar’s niece Atia (Polly Walker) bathes in the blood of a sacrificial bull to ensure the safety of her child Octavian (Max Pirkis) while he’s away. When the generic percussion soundtrack abruptly ceases, leaving us with Atia getting drenched in bull-blood in near silence, the perverse eroticism of the scene fully sets in. The final twist comes when the ritual’s original purpose is reaffirmed: the still-steaming Atia cheerfully accepts the presiding priest’s assurance that her son will now be safe. What is a disturbing superstition to us is to her a straightforward transaction.
Atia is easily Rome‘s most magnetic figure. Though she seems too deliciously overwrought to be anything but contrived, she also challenges our expectations. The first time we see her, she’s having sex with one of her personal gophers, Timon (Lee Boardman). She’s on top, and the camera ogles her body, keeping her face mostly obscured; it’s an image from countless films where the rich, powerful man gets it on with a nameless servant. Here she’s the supercilious boss, remarking, “I’ve always found something strangely erotic about goatish little men.”
The other scene stealer is Octavian, the future Augustus Caesar. On the surface a spoiled brat (with a Garfunkel haircut, no less), the boy proves to be as politically astute and capable of callousness as his mother, or his great-uncle, for that matter. After being inadvertently rescued from a Gaul raiding party, he beats to death one of his attackers, then explains to his dumbfounded rescuers the long-term political plans of their employer, Julius Caesar. He’s a cagey bastard in training, and one hopes he will develop into that rarest of child monsters: one with depth. Though the series doesn’t appear to judge these historical villains, it is difficult not to notice the exploitation of their viciousness as entertainment.
The series gestures toward a Deadwood-esque character study of men in turmoil (and the women who subvert the dominance games for themselves). But the split into two rarely intersecting social classes makes this difficult. Mid-ranking Roman centurions Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) might offer a social realist counterpoint to all the historical reenactment. But as they are presented as a pretty ho-hum straight man (Lucius) vs. wild man (Titus) partnership, they mostly take time from the other major storyline.
Rome is at its best when it focuses on the mighty personalities. The senators are all fops, and Caesar and Pompey are your standard vicious-yet-sort-of-tragic ubermensches. In this light, the series is yet another uncritical “study” (read: celebration) of great historical figures, and we take pleasure in watching them run roughshod over each other and everyone else while claiming to love and support “the people.” The token commoners (Lucius and Titus) are just as brutal. Like Deadwood, the series claims “authenticity” in such depictions, but a more subtle sort of distancing might help make this point, less emotional immersion, less aesthetic stylization.
Unless, of course, an ode to Roman values is precisely the point. Such a take would certainly not be unexpected from co-creator John Milius, the only member of the writing team who qualifies as a veteran. In films he’s worked on, most notably Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, and Conan: The Barbarian (which he also directed), his sometimes unpalatable hyper-masculinism was turned into gripping, surreal, fantastic cinema. Here it’s only diluted, hidden beneath the pretense of “true stories.” In any case, the series evinces at least a lingering fascination with the Roman way of rule, if not a wholesale endorsement of it. The civilization that would bring about the Pax Romana always seems inextricably linked to ideals of entitlement, destiny, and progress, despite our growing awareness of their “unfortunate” costs. For all the cultivated grit and passions of this historically savvy production, the myth of Rome lives on.