DVD review by The Movie Snob
Rome (Season One). I bought these DVDs a long time ago, probably back when I was reading biographies of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. I thoroughly enjoyed them, watching all twelve first-season episodes over four or five evenings. But be warned–for some reason the directors decided they couldn’t tell the story of Julius Caesar without tons of nudity and sex. I’ve never had HBO, but I guess that’s HBO for you. Anyway, just be aware (or beware) that this is NC17 stuff.
Anyway, the series is a saga that unfolds over about 8 years, from 52 B.C. when Caesar has wrapped up his conquest of Gaul (modern France) to roughly the middle of March in 44 B.C. The leading men and women of Rome are accounted for: Caesar, his niece Atia, his great-nephew Octavian, his wife Calpurnia, Mark Antony, Brutus, Cicero, Pompey, and Cato. (Cleopatra also makes an appearance.) Young Octavian, who would eventually become Caesar Augustus, is a particularly interesting character–intelligent and philosophical, but as ruthless as the rest when necessary. But what really draws you in is the focus on two ordinary Roman soldiers in Caesar’s army, a grunt named Titus Pullo and an officer named Lucius Vorenus, who become friends and get drawn into the political intrigue around Caesar as he returns to Rome from Gaul. They are a great pair. Vorenus is intelligent, pious, and honorable, but short-tempered and perhaps a little naive. Pullo is a simpler fellow, generally amoral but loyal and likeable, and less prone than Vorenus to assume that aristocrats are automatically virtuous folk.
Although the story seems “soaped up,” I think it is basically true to the basic facts of history. The series opens with the death of Julius Caesar’s daughter Julia, who was married to his great rival Pompey. With that bond shattered, the two men were put on a collision course that led to years of civil war that raged across Italy, Greece, and Egypt. For Caesar, defeating his enemies militarily was child’s play compared to the challenge of reforming Rome’s corrupt aristocratic “Republic.” It’s all there on the screen–the battles, the intrigue, the filthy streets, elaborate temples and forums, and bloody religious rituals. I was engrossed.
A final note on how HBO generally did a good job of not transposing modern customs and mores onto the ancient Romans. The characters occasionally shock you when, for instance, they treat or refer to their slaves as nonhumans, or children as the property of their father. Compassion is almost an unknown concept, and to the extent it exists it is certainly not wasted on barbarians or even on other Romans of lower birth than oneself. Morality itself was different in many ways–but the same in others, especially as exemplified in the touching friendship between Vorenus and Pullo.
I look forward to watching the second season, although I don’t see how it can be quite as exciting as the first. Well, the contest for control of Rome between Octavian and Mark Antony could be pretty good, but once Octavian became Caesar Augustus my recollection is that he did a very good job of maintaining control without triggering too many rebellions and without ever succumbing to intrigue. We’ll see.