I wish the Senate to be made of the best people in Italy, not just the richest old men in Rome
— Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds)
Season One of HBO’s Rome ended with the assassination of Julius Caesar on the floor of the Roman Senate. As the camera pulled back, the entrance to the Senate amphitheater framed the scene proscenium-style, all white marble with the Caesar’s bloody body crumpled on the floor. It was an apt visual metaphor for the grand Greco-Roman tragedy that informs the series. Yet such theatrical distancing is rare on Rome, in which lusty, scheming Romans and their politics are so very immediate. Despite the show’s BBC co-production, Rome is no high-falutin’ classic. Rome‘s Rome is filled with spitting, drinking, fucking, plotting, and backstabbing, a grimy imperial city that makes today’s political goings-on even more resonant.
In large part, this relevance is achieved by the series’ interweaving of class and gender. The rise of Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) from the ranks of the Roman legions to Senator of Rome is replete with his and his wife Niobe’s (Indira Varma) struggles and anxieties over “fitting in.” The ghettoization of the Jews and the abject exploitation of slaves is a common thread; in Marc Antony’s (James Purefoy) estimation, a good retirement would be spent in the country, “plowing my fields and fucking my slaves,” both equally nonhuman property. And women have a precarious relation to power, even while the feuding between Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) and Atia (Polly Walker) drives the public and political activities of the day.
The position of women in public was foregrounded in the Season Two premiere, “Passover.” Servilia summoned Atia to her palace under thin cover of a social visit. Previously Caesar’s lover, Servilia was dumped by the tyrant after public rumors that she had “unmanned” him (rumors started, of course, by Atia). She subsequently experienced not only the demise of her love affair but of her social reputation as well, the latter much more important to her. Accordingly, she vowed revenge on Atia, fulfilled in Sunday’s episode. As Caesar’s niece, Atia found she had precious little public protection in the wake of his death, an assassination Servilia masterminded and carried out through her son Brutus (Tobias Menzies). Her vengeance complete, Servilia vowed to run Atia out of town and see her subjected to innumerable horrors.
Barred by social convention from participating in politics, or much public life at all, the women in Rome are of central influence to Republic shaking events. And while Servilia is largely driven by “womanly” revenge, Atia is deeply involved in economic and political manipulations. Indeed, as lover to Marc Antony, she appears more in control of him than vice versa. Despite their sometimes over-the-top stylings and narratives, these are women to be reckoned with.
Touted as the last season by HBO, because of astronomical production costs, the second season opened with struggles instigated and indicated by two different corpses. Returning to the Senate floor, the episode opened on the physical fact and political costs of Caesar’s death, but his corpse was quickly replaced with that of Vorenus’ wife Niobe. Having been cajoled by one of Servilia’s toadies into confronting her husband about the questionable paternity of their “grandson,” Niobe was faced with Vorenus’ glowering rage; she threw herself from their balcony rather than be murdered by her husband.
The deaths are tightly connected, thematically and visually: Vorenus, Caesar’s erstwhile protector, was lured away from the Senate by Servilia in order to leave Caesar vulnerable. They also speak to the problem of power in Rome. Niobe was carted unnoticed by her husband through Rome (despite the fact that Vorenus is an enormously popular plebe) and cremated outside the city gates, attended only by Vorenus and his soldier-brother Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Caesar, by comparison, was given a magnificent state funeral attended by throngs of citizens and plebes, the latter becoming an angry mob after Marc Antony’s famously histrionic eulogy. Those with privilege, such as Marc Antony, used their power and grief to maneuver the populace to their own ends, while those without were left in squalor and sorrow.
The abuse of the underclasses is business as usual in Rome. When Caesar quipped that he wanted the “Senate to be made of the best people in Italy, not just the richest old men in Rome,” it was obvious he was trying to solidify his own power by stacking the Senate with loyalists, rather than appealing to some political ideal. Such lofty political rhetoric disguising base power-grabbing is all too familiar in a contemporary US context; it was the stuff of the “Republican Revolution” and the recent tactics of the newly Democratic Congress seem none too different, safely hyperbolized under the rhetoric of “reform,” of course.
The connections of Rome to current US woes come easily to mind. At the start of Season Two, the Republic looks on the brink of ruin, its democratic ideals subverted by influence-pedaling and infighting. Perhaps more to the point of recent US dilemmas, Rome demonstrates the establishment of democracy isn’t easy, especially if that democracy is imposed through military power. But then again, Caesar was never as interested in equality or liberty as in protecting his own interests, and we know what that got him. Those citizens and plebes left in the wake of his disastrous campaigns are here left to squabble over (exit) strategies to return “Rome” to its height of power and prestige, diddling in the margins while Baghdad, I mean Rome, burns.