It wasn’t until the ninth episode that HBO’s Rome resonated beyond the confines of a well-plotted melodrama. At this point, when Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) was asked to be a magistrate in a government he didn’t like, family started tearing at the conscience of Marcus Junius Brutus (Tobias Menzies), and Porcius Cato (Karl Johnson) slid a sword into his stomach to deny Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) his sovereignty, the miniseries finally got past a recounting of historical events and began to explore the concept of Rome, in the abstract, as a republic.
At last the tragedies seemed not just the effects of individuals’ actions, but of systemic mistakes. The Roman Republic was revealed as a convenient arrangement among like-minded people and resources. As I started to compare their republic to mine, I was, coincidentally, reading Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America. And what he wrote of Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Tears of Rage” seemed applicable: “In its image of wholeness, the song asks if America even exists, and if the notion of Americans, or any people, as ‘members of the same body’… is not some kind of lunacy of obscenity.”
Initially, Rome‘s breakdown of such lunacy appealed to the history-loving geek in me, with high drama entertainingly awash in steaming blood and hot sex. I got a knowing thrill from Gaius “Augustus” Octavian (Max Pirkis) pouting and searched for clues to the future marriage of his sister Octavia (Kerry Condon) and Marc Antony (James Purefoy) whenever they shared the screen. Atia of Julii (Polly Walker), mother of Octavian, was so deliciously awful, that her complete fictionalization bothered me not in the least. (By all accounts, she was a sober, religious woman.)
Most of all, I found the series’ depiction of filthy, chaotic Roman life profoundly satisfying. Besides a few “mosey down Main Street tableaus,” where the characters carried on conversations while passing by the emblems of daily life — a business transaction, a puppet show, a sculptor — it attained the obscure depth I love in good historical recreation: the recognition of an era’s broad contours, fraught with an eternal foreignness. This unknowability hovered over Atia’s whoring of Octavia to Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), Servilia of Junni’s (Lindsay Duncan) cursing Caesar and Atia, and Lucius’ brutal behavior on his return home from Gaul.
However, I was irritated at the civil war’s condensation in the middle of the first season. The omission of many details is certainly understandable for sake of plot, but the sense of many years passing was confused. A 10-second battle scene (repeated shots of running legs) obscured the importance of the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar defeated Pompey. (This was almost rectified later, when an army-less Pompey mapped out the battle with a stick in dirt to Vorenus and Titus Pullo [Ray Stevenson].)
But the season’s middle portion, detailing the civil war and Caesar’s excursion to Egypt, threatened to derail the series. Here the overriding dilemma became clear: how to keep busy the most engaging, but also most problematic, characters: Lucius and Titus, the soldiers in Caesar’s famed 13th legion. A professional soldier, Lucius was conservative, loyal to Rome, and devoted to his family. Titus, by contrast, was a fierce brute, full of passion but not much common sense. They met cute in the Gallic Wars, shipped off to fight with Caesar at Pharsalus, stumbled across Greece when their ship sank, captured Pompey, and then let him go. Mere coincidence cannot explain how they consistently found themselves in such important situations, but I granted the writers a little leeway when Caesar refused to have them executed for letting Pompey free because, Caesar said, “They have powerful gods on their side and I will not kill any man with friends of that sort.” I thought this odd couple was going to turn into an absurd counterpoint to the more famous Rosecranz and Guildenstern. But by the time, they were being seduced by a druggy, shaggy-haired Cleopatra in the Sahara, my patience ran out.
Perhaps this is to be expected when two anonymous fictional characters are shoehorned into one of history’s greatest sagas, but I hope by Season Two, the writers, chiefly writer/executive-producers Bruno Heller, John Milius, and William J. Macdonald figure out a more graceful way to incorporate them. For when Lucius and Titus worked well, as when they struggled to survive in Rome, defenseless against the shifting definition of their empire, their stories were the most emotionally compelling and illuminating.
At the start of the series, Lucius’ loyalty lay with Rome. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the soldier refused to support him, but he was repeatedly forced to accept various positions within Caesar’s army and regime in order to support his family. A patriot whose allegiance was exploited, Lucius was not unlike an upwardly mobile, middle-class dad (his daughter took flute lessons), silently burdened by the compromises he made to thrive. He benefited from Caesar’s placement of plebeians into the government, but he was openly mocked when appointed to senator.
Titus was eager to point out the hypocrisy of Lucius’ actions against his vaunted ideals. A brilliant soldier, Titus only felt loyalty to his brothers in the 13th. He taught Octavian how to torture and committed murders for a local crime boss. When arrested for killing a local official (ordered in secret by Caesar), Titus became an unlikely advocate of peaceful protest. He refused to take part in his trial and, when sent to the gladiator arena to die, he didn’t fight back until someone brought up the 13th. In many ways, he was a terrible, shockingly violent person, but his honesty and vulnerability made him sympathetic.
Unlike Titus, the nobles freely asserted their allegiance to Rome (“I serve the Republic,” or “The Republic is in your hands”). But whenever they did, whether in sincerity or irony, the meaning of Rome blurred into a jumble of ideals and self-serving motives. To Atia and Servilia, the best state kept their respective households, Julii and Junii, at the pinnacle of Roman aristocracy. The moderate, verbose Senator Marcus Tillius Cicero (David Bamber) tried to keep the old Republic together by siding with whomever he thought was winning (he was what Dick Cheney would call a “flip-flopper”). Cato, the self-disciplined stoic, sided against Caesar, but soon realized his faction was too fractured to survive.
So, it would seem that the Republic became a loose structure within which these nobles would rise and fall. Each week, the credits opened with a dancing image taken from a wall mosaic in Pompeii, described by Tom Holland in his book, Rubicon, as “A skull… balanced precariously on a butterfly and a wheel: death haunts life, and fortune is endlessly mutable.” Indeed, the series highlighted unpredictable and deadly shifts in power: the Egyptian child king Ptolemy was dumped in the Nile, the Gallic king Vercingetorix tortured and killed in front of the Roman people, and Pompey was ingloriously beheaded.
Caesar’s fury at Pompey’s demise seemed to stem less from their former friendship than his fears of a similarly pathetic end. This fully realized version of Caesar showed him to be a contemptuous “friend” to the common man, loving and cold-blooded, politically brilliant, fiercely self-serving, always maneuvering. Though a tyrant, Caesar gained power by understanding the Senate’s corruption, ruled by and for nobles. His popularity with the military and working class was ample leverage against this body. What he aimed to set up in its place approached a democracy, as he filled the Senate with Gauls and plebeians, concerned with keeping the masses satisfied. But he didn’t care about democracy. He only wanted to construct a government that supported him as emperor.
By the series’ cynical logic, Caesar served all by serving himself. The real Cicero, in On the State, analyzes monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies, and determines that all can be equally viable, “provided that no elements of injustice or greed are mingled with it… But if I were compelled to approve one single unmixed form, [I might choose] the kingship.” This would seem a distressing conclusion, were it not for the knowledge that the endgame of this power struggle — which I imagine will be worked out in Season Three, after a second civil war and after Marc Antony and Cleopatra — is that Octavian, crowned the first Roman Emperor as Augustus, will unite and embolden the empire.
If there is a civics lesson to be gleaned from Rome, it is to beware the passions inflamed by a government in the midst of an identity crisis. Greil Marcus, in The Old, Weird America, writes, “Sooner or later… with the quest for a single social body gone… people will being to kill each other, even their own children.” And so it is: at the end of the first season, Caesar lay dead, the conspirators’ plot already seemed doomed (Cicero wrote in a letter that it was carried out with “the spirits of men, but the foresight of children”), Servilia declared open war on Atia, and Lucius’ wife committed suicide. Following self-serving actions and shortsighted compromises, almost all the major characters were dead or doomed. The only winners wielded absolute power (Octavian waiting in the wings) and had nothing at stake. Grasping at some sense of conclusion, the last shot had Titus strolling towards the Appian Way. If the big brute has any brains, he’ll keep walking.