Hello everyone! Today’s post will be on Season 1, Episode 1, of the HBO show Rome. I know that it has been a while since anything appeared here, and I apologize; from now on, I will try to get posts up more often. Rome is in itself not a new show, but nonetheless made a significant impact on the world of historical dramas. The question, as always, however, is how rooted in history it actually is.
I should begin by saying that I am on the fence as to whether I enjoyed Rome. On the one hand, it presents a fascinating and complex picture of Roman history during the period of the Civil War and the Second Triumvirate; on the other, its mistakes (so far) are many, and it oversimplifies or flat out alters beyond recognition many of the leading players in the drama. The production values of the show are certainly excellent (which was an important factor in the cancellation of the well-received show after only two seasons); similarly, most of the actors do a wonderful job. It is the writing which, perhaps, could have stood improvement. In the vein of my recent posts on Troy, I am going to split my initial impressions of this episode into several categories, the first two of which will appear in this post. These categories are:
- Hollywood (un)Romanticism
- Fact-Based Omissions.
For more, continue past the link.
The first episode of Rome opens with Caesar’s legions fighting in Gaul, which he has been conquering for the past eight years; this battle, in fact, was the final battle of the campaign, bringing with it the surrender of Vercingetorix, the chieftain of the Gallic tribes revolting at the time. This is, in itself, historical; the year of the battle in the show also matches with the death of his daughter Julia, as depicted; perhaps, however, the scene of Caesar receiving the news of his daughter’s death in childbirth directly after his victory was not as historical. However, where condensation enters the picture is the speed with which events move thereafter. The battle took place historically in 53 BCE; Caesar invades Italy four years later, in 49 BCE. However, at the end of this episode Caesar’s legions begin their march back to Italy, only a couple of weeks after the battle takes place. As is often the case, I understand why this alteration was made; frankly, opening with a dramatic battle and the split between Caesar and Pompey and then cutting forward four years would not be as exciting. Be that as it may, the fact does nevertheless remain that this is not historical.
The second category was the most egregious of the three. The other two categories can be explained by plot necessity and by the drama factor; this category (to an extent) cannot. Why, you may be thinking, have I titled this category Hollywood (un)Romanticism, as opposed to Hollywood Romanticism in the Troy posts? The answer is that as an HBO show, Rome is naturally rated 18+; therefore, they have taken it upon themselves to live up to this rating in as dramatic a fashion as possible.
The chief example is the mother of Octavian, Atia. When viewing the portrayal of Atia in this show, I thought “This can’t match with the historical record, because Augustus and his successors would have ensured that his mother was not viewed in this manner.” As it turns out, I was right. Not only is the portrayal of Atia ahistorical, but it is actually offensive. When the audience is introduced to Atia, she is in the process of “purchasing” a horse to send to Caesar by sleeping with the seller. This scene combines several traits that, it seems, Atia did not historically possess. First of all, Tacitus describes Atia in his Dialogus de Oratoribus as directing her “children’s education and [rearing] the greatest of sons. The strictness of the discipline tended to form… a pure and virtuous nature which no vices would warp.” This is hardly the description of a woman who would perform actions such as those described above. The second trait which it seems that Atia did not historically possess is overwhelming ambition. In fact, when the news of Caesar’s choice as his successor was made known, both Atia and her husband (who is mysteriously absent so far in the show) begged Octavian not to accept the “honour”, as they were worried he would be killed. In the show, in contrast, Atia shows little scruples when sending Octavian to Gaul, despite the admitted danger of the journey, simply so he can get in Caesar’s good graces.
The other character who suffers from this treatment is the sister of Octavian, Octavia. In the show, Atia forces her daughter to sleep with Pompey as soon as they are betrothed, soon after also forcing her to divorce her husband. Historically, though the divorce was proposed, Pompey rejected the offer and so it did not occur; therefore, the two almost certainly never slept together. This is an entirely unnecessary addition to the show, as even if the goal was to showcase the cruelty of Atia or her ambition (though, it must be said, it is unlikely the proposal was entirely her initiative historically, as depicted in the show), having her make the request would have sufficed. Octavia would historically later be married to Mark Antony, to whom she would demonstrate extensive loyalty despite his total lack thereof, even raising his children by Cleopatra as her own; however, this will likely make it into the show as well, and so can be mentioned at a later date.
Overall, while I want to enjoy Rome, I have difficulties doing so. The show actually does a decent job with history, successfully evoking the atmosphere of Rome in almost every aspect, including religiously. Even the characters are mostly historical. However, as with many of the other shows and films I have discussed here, where it stumbles is in a misplaced desire to make history more dramatic. This period of Roman history is among the most dramatic in all of history, and simply does not need another villain (in the form of Atia) or to disgrace the good name of historical figures to make a good story. If the show continues in this vein, my verdict on it will be settled. I hope you have all enjoyed this post, and have a wonderful day.
1 Rhodes College. “Julius Caesar: Historical Background.” Last modified March 2011.
2 University of Chicago. “Tacitus, Dialogus de Oratoribus, 16.28.” n.d.
3 Tufts University. “A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology: A’tia.” n.d.
4 Tufts University. “A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology: Octa’via.” n.d.
5 Tufts University. “A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology: Octa’via.” n.d.