SMALL SCREEN ROME
Monica S. Cyrino (ed.), Rome Season One: History Makes Television. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xiii + 255, incl. 7 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4051-6775-8. UK£19.99.
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Monica Cyrino is rapidly establishing herself as a notable authority on the reception of ancient Rome in film studies. First, she published Big Screen Rome (Oxford 2005),[] which looked at all the major portrayals of ancient Rome in the movies up until the advent of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000). Second, in 2008 Cyrino has turned her attention to the representation of Rome on the (relatively, nowadays) small screen, with the work under review here, an examination of the first season of the hit HBO-BBC television series Rome, which was created by Bruno Heller, John Milius, and William J. MacDonald.
In this volume, Cyrino as editor has brought together an impressive selection of essays from a number of different scholars who all focus on specific aspects of the first season of Rome. At first I was somewhat frustrated at the thought that only the first season would be covered. As with all good works of fiction which extend over more than one volume, Season One and Season Two of the Rome series do work together, and, as I would argue, one should ideally view the entire series as a unit. However, the fact that Cyrino chose to limit the book to the first series does give the work a certain degree of focus that might have been lost with a broader scope. Practical considerations, and the desire to get the work published as soon as possible, likely played a part in this. Putting together a work comprising the contributions of numerous scholars does take a good deal of work, time, and organisational skill. The second series of Rome was aired on television in the United States for the first time in 2007, which would have meant that it was too late to be included in this volume, which was brought out in 2008. Presumably, though, we can anticipate a second volume entitled Rome, Season Two in future. I look forward to this, as I think there are a great many points of comparison between the two seasons that require scrutiny.
In her introduction, Cyrino describes the volume as ‘a collection of essays that responds to the critical and commercial success of the first season of the television series Rome’ (p. 3). Of course, the book itself gains a certain amount of commercial viability and cachet by its mere association with this successful series; illustrating this, the volume’s cover is a virtual replica of the cover of the first season’s DVD box, which makes it instantly recognisable to its target audience, and enhances its appeal. Not that I’m judging it by that -- there is a great deal of solid scholarship in this volume, and I found most of the essays in it well written and thought-provoking.
As is to be expected, Cyrino herself has penned both the introduction and one of the chapters in this volume (Chapter 10, ‘Atia and the Erotics of Authority’). The star- struck Cyrino[] begins her introduction by describing a tour of the set of the Rome series at Cinecittà Studios in Rome itself. The creators of the series find inspiration in the fact that the ruins of the real Roman forum are just a few blocks away, and Cyrino and her students are equally in awe of the Rome sets at Cinecittà Studios as they wander about on a special permission visit, organised by one of Cyrino’s connections high up in the Italian film industry (pp. 1-3). Cyrino talks about the success of the series (p. 3), then goes on to pay attention to the historical background of the period covered by the first season (p. 4), and to its chief protagonists.
The ‘ordinary’ Romans Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, who are ‘the heart and soul of Rome’s narrative trajectory’, as Cyrino notes (p. 4f.), are the names of real men mentioned by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic War (5.44) where both men are said to be centurions, both courageous, and both close to reaching senior rank. Cyrino notes that ‘Rome captures well the complex blend of rivalry, camaraderie, and allegiance shared between the "real" Vorenus and Pullo’ as described by Caesar (p. 5). The series, however, makes Lucius Vorenus Titus Pullo’s superior in military rank, and while it does show the equal courage and loyalty of both men, it also gives them strikingly different characters, morals, and political views. Vorenus is the serious one, politically conservative (‘a strict Catonian’, as Octavian explains to Atia in Episode 2),[] who does everything ‘by the book’, and is sexually monogamous[] (if somewhat incompetent),[] entirely loyal to his wife Niobe, despite her own secret indiscretions and the many problems their marriage faces.[] As Cyrino notes (p. 5), Vorenus’ fortunes rise substantially over the course of the first series, and his marriage improves with them, only for it all to come to a crashing catastrophe at the series’ end, where they mirror (and indeed, according to the series, are a catalyst for) the disaster that befalls Julius Caesar. Pullo, on the other hand, is the naughty, funny one of the duo, always at hand with a quick comment that is often disrespectful toward the gods and the powers-that-be. Pullo is politically more liberal than Vorenus, despite his claims that he understands little of politics, is more likely than his friend to take chances where he can, and is sexually hopelessly promiscuous.[]
Cyrino comments: ‘While Vorenus wears the tragic mask, his friendly rival, Pullo dons the mask of comedy. Pullo represents a type of Everyman figure, in particular, the indestructible spirit of the Roman people: in more contemporary cinematic terms, he is like the character Forrest Gump in his role as an incidental agent of high politics and history’ (p. 5). Over the course of the first season of the Rome series, Pullo’s fortunes do follow a downward trajectory, with his personally disastrous manumission of his beloved slave Eirene, only to find that her intentions were all the while to marry a fellow slave. Pullo then kills Eirene’s intended husband in a fit of rage (Episode 10). He argues with Vorenus, is thrown out of the latter’s house, loses hope, becomes a hired killer for Erastes Fulmen, and is eventually a convicted criminal condemned to die in the arena, when his old friend Vorenus intervenes to save him (Episode 11). Thereafter Pullo’s fortunes improve, and by the end of the season, his luck is restored, when we see him walking hand-in-hand in the countryside with Eirene (at the start of the next season, we also witness him proposing marriage to her). Pullo’s fortunes have taken a dip, but come up again, whereas Vorenus’ had a more spectacular rise in terms of social class, but ultimately an even more dramatic fall at the end. Cyrino comments that ‘Pullo is shown to be a survivor, and so presents the optimistic flip side to the tragic coin of Vorenus’ (p. 6). In the final episode of Season One, Cyrino observes: ‘Even as Rome falls into turmoil with the assassination of Caesar, the final shot of Pullo walking hand-in- hand with his beloved Eirene, whose name means 'Peace', offers a visual promise of the ultimate survival of the Roman people’ (p. 6).
Here is where knowledge of Season Two of the Rome series may have the potential to change our interpretation of these images: undoubtedly, as far as Season One goes, Cyrino’s conclusions are warranted, but the plot of the second season shows that Pullo is not immune to tragedy, particularly when his slave lover Gaia, in a jealous bid to have Pullo for herself, kills both his wife Eirene and their unborn child by giving her a dangerous abortifacient late in her pregnancy (Season Two, Episode 8). So, ultimately, Pullo and Eirene’s bid to start a family (and so, indirectly, perpetuate the Roman people) comes to naught. Eirene is in any case a foreigner, possibly German in origin (we hear that she comes from ‘beyond the Rhine’, when Pullo touchingly prays to her unknown and unnamed gods on her behalf after her death),[] and she is only in Rome because, like ‘Egeria’, the prostitute with whom Octavian loses his virginity in Episode 6, she was sold into slavery there. Also, the fact that Pullo is out of town on the Ides of March, means that he cannot be there for his friend Vorenus in his hour of need when, as part of Servilia’s plot to kill Caesar, Vorenus is lured away from his post as Caesar’s right-hand man and bodyguard by the truth about his wife’s adultery and the paternity of young Lucius. Pullo, although still convalescing from his injuries in the arena, was probably the only person who could have restrained Vorenus or talked some sense into him, yet he was out of town. So ultimately the images of Pullo and his beloved Eirene in the country are part of the whole tragedy of the Ides of March, as presented by the Rome series. They emphasise the fact that Pullo is not in Rome to help his friend Vorenus. Cyrino is correct, though, in identifying Pullo as the more resilient, optimistic one of the duo, as the events and endings of both seasons suggest.
Cyrino aptly sums up one of the main reasons for the series’ appeal, commenting on Rome’s intelligent use of juxtaposition, and its jumping between the worlds of the high and the low, the real and the fictional: ‘Rome utilizes this technique of cutting between the 'high' and the 'low' worlds to extraordinary effect: this rubbing together of the two worlds, between the elites and the plebs, between the historical personages and the invented ones, creates a unique dramatic friction that is unlike any other representation of the ancient world on screen’ (p. 6). The series’ strong focus on social class (called the ‘Rich Man/Poor Man’ theme in this volume), I suspect, has much to do with its British origins. Introducing the rest of the contributors to the volume, Cyrino notes that they are all experts in their subfields of academia, and that they all accept the book’s premise that studying modern recreations of the ancient world, like the Rome series, ‘should rightly be seen as the natural occupation of modern classicists’ (p. 7).
In the interests of brevity, I shall concentrate on those chapters of the volume that I found most fascinating and memorable. In the volume’s first chapter (‘Televising Antiquity: From You Are There to Rome’, pp. 11-28), Jon Solomon places the Rome series in its wider context by exploring the history of broadcast special events, made-for-television films, and mini-series on American television. Although this ably constructed chapter is well-written and researched, it was the least interesting to me as a Classicist from outside of the USA. However, Solomon does highlight some of the most influential of the Rome series’ predecessors, in particular I, Claudius, Jack Pulman’s adaptation of Robert Graves’ books I, Claudius and Claudius the God (also British-made, and aired on television in the USA in the 1977-1978 season). This series, according to Solomon (p. 17), was noted not only for testing the boundaries of what was acceptable on public television, but also for setting, with the character of Livia (Siân Phillips), standards of ‘gorgeous malevolence’ to which future Roman femmes fatales such as Atia and Servilia could aspire.
At the start of Chapter 2 (‘Making History in Rome: Ancient vs. Modern Perspectives’, pp. 29-41), W. Jeffrey Tatum astutely observes that the appeal of the Rome series is largely due to ‘its cunning combination of fantasy and truth’ (p. 29), pointing out that any viewer unfamiliar with the history of the period would have a hard time sorting out reality from fiction. Indeed, the series writers seem to delight in exploiting loopholes in our knowledge of antiquity to come up with their own sometimes outrageously implausible but at the same time dramatically credible versions of events. Tatum, however, reminds us that the Romans themselves could be equally inventive with their history to an extent which approaches ‘the creative operations we associate with historical fiction or historical drama’ (p. 30). He notes, with a turn of phrase that echoes the wordplay in the title of Cyrino’s volume: ‘The Romans made history -- in more than one sense of the expression’ (p. 29). The Romans consciously reinvented their own past in their attempts both to entertain and to edify -- so ironically, according to Tatum (although I’m not sure I would agree with him entirely), the Rome series and the ancient historiographers are not so far apart after all.
One of the most entertaining pieces in the volume is Chapter 3, Kristina Milnor’s brief but hysterically funny memoir entitled ‘What I Learned as an Historical Consultant for Rome’ (pp. 42-48). In the first sentence of her essay, we are informed that Milnor never actually was an official consultant for the Rome series, but that, while attached to the American Academy in Rome, she was contacted early in the production process and sounded out about various aspects concerning the historical authenticity of the show (p. 42). Although initially disinterested and unimpressed by these approaches, Milnor relates how her interest was aroused when one of the assistants to the executive producers contacted her because they were looking for someone who spoke Ubuan (later appearing the series as Ubian), the supposed language of ancient Gaul. When Milnor tried to explain that little is known about this language, she was asked to recommend ‘a good English-Ubuan dictionary’ (p. 43)! Milnor recalls that she was so charmed by the ‘sheer irony of a production which, on the one hand, wished to reproduce authentically a lost ancient provincial dialect and, on the other, rather thought that there were enough English-Ubuan dictionaries in the world to be classed into 'good' ones and 'bad' ones’, that she agreed to meet with the producers (pp. 43f.). Milnor’s insightful chapter makes many telling comparisons between, on the one hand, the disciplines of Ancient History and Classics which, as academic enterprises, rely to a certain extent on creativity and intuition to uncover a distant and unseen past (Milnor compares this to flying in an aeroplane over an unfamiliar landscape at night), and, on the other, the entertainment industry, which also relies on these factors to represent or recreate this past. But Milnor ultimately discovers that there are limits to how far the producers of the show are prepared to go in understanding and accommodating real differences between modern sensibilities and ancient societal practice –- they shrink back in horror, for example, when she mentions the practice of infant exposure, and one of her interlocutors suggests that this would make the show’s Romans appear undesirably ‘evil’ to modern viewers (p. 45). Milnor observes that the producers of Rome ‘wanted Romans who were different, but not too different; unusual, but not frightening; strange, titillating, even sometimes disgusting, but not 'evil'’ (p. 45). They were unable, she finds, to conceptualise the manner in which the Romans may have been truly different from us, in small, everyday ways: ‘These things don’t make spectacular television but they are the stuff of history, and the stuff, I would argue, that can never be realised on screen’ (p. 48). I don’t think that this is a case of sour grapes over the fact that she was not, in the end, the series’ official historical consultant. Milnor’s insights are, for me, something of lasting value in a Thucydidean sense.
Chapters 5 and 6 both have a military focus. In Chapter 5 (‘The Fog of War: The Army in Rome’, pp. 61-77), Lee L. Brice examines the fact that the series departs substantially from the fare of gory battles and severe punishments usually meted out to soldiers in standard portrayals of the Roman world. Brice does not see the absence of the screen soldiers from the main theatres of warfare as a problem; rather, he points out that the series is actually more realistic than its predecessors in its presentations of the humdrum everyday existence of soldiers. In shifting the focus away from violent battles, Rome, he suggests, seems to be following in the footsteps of other recent on-screen depictions of the military (p. 62). Brice notes that only a small portion of someone’s military life would be spent in the midst of the great decisive battles so loved by the ‘swords-and- sandals’ brigade, and that most of the actual fighting done by Roman soldiers was either of a briefer nature or involved less violence than we have been led to believe (p. 63). Much of military life could even be boring or mundane, but this was an equally important part of this life (p. 75). Brice also argues that in its somewhat disjointed presentations of battles that it does show, the series approaches a reasonable representation of what is known in modern times as the ‘Fog of War’, whereby individual soldiers normally have no idea of how the battle they are involved in is going, or which side is winning; all they are aware of is what is going on in their own field of view (p. 65). Brice concludes that Rome’s portrayal of individual soldiers and of warfare in general is more realistic than many previous portrayals.
In Chapter 6 (‘Caesar’s Soldiers: The Pietas of Vorenus and Pullo’, pp. 78-86), Brian Cooke analyses Vorenus and Pullo in terms of their military, political and personal allegiances. He compares the serious-minded Vorenus, who is tormented by his sometimes conflicting loyalties, to the hero of the Aeneid: ‘A strong and pious man of Roman virtue, Vorenus is a war-hardened yet peace-seeking soldier who evokes comparison with Aeneas, the reluctant hero and preordained founder of Rome. Just as Vergil sings the story of Aeneas, the series portrays Vorenus as a dutiful warrior and troubled patriot who struggles to reconcile his allegiance to the Republic with his devotion to gods, friends, and fatherland’ (p. 79). Cooke observes that this introduces the Roman concept of pietas into the plot of the series. If pius Vorenus is Aeneas (note that he evades the snares of the seductive queen Dido/Cleopatra in Episode 8), one is left wondering who Pullo represents; the best I could come up with is Odysseus, although the hapless Pullo, while admittedly suffering many twists and turns of fate in the course of the first season before being reunited with his beloved Eirene at its end, is not nearly as resourceful or as crafty as the hero of the Odyssey. Cooke, however, goes some way to explaining the appeal of the two men’s unlikely friendship. He points out that although modern audiences will identify with Vorenus’ conflicting personal and political loyalties, for the Romans, loyalty to family and close friends came before all other obligations: ‘This is why Vorenus’ decision to defy Republican law and defend Pullo in the arena (Episode 11) is such a quintessentially Roman act’ (p. 85). Shared loyalty to their legion, in addition to personal friendship, is shown to be a motivating factor in this, one of the most emotive points in the entire series, when we witness Vorenus, at first tortured by his conscience, but finally determined, rushing in at the last minute to save his friend and comrade.
A number of chapters (9-13) focus on women and gender issues in the series. One of the most remarkable of these, Gregory N. Daugherty’s ‘Her First Roman: A Cleopatra for Rome’ (Chapter 11, pp. 141-52), deals with the representation of Cleopatra in the first season of the series. As Daugherty points out (p. 141), the character of Cleopatra only makes her appearance in half of one episode, yet for many viewers the image is quite a shock. Instead of the extraordinary beauty, wit, and confident authority exhibited by the Elizabeth Taylor version (1963), Rome’s audience was presented with ‘a chained, drug-addled, whining waif with cynical schemes of seduction and a suppositious child sired by a fortunate soldier of convenience’ (p. 141). Apart from this Cleopatra’s disappointing appearance,[] her behaviour is that of a spoiled teenage brat rather than a brilliant head of state. In the course of his chapter, however, Daugherty convincingly argues that this Cleopatra ‘is not a complete departure from earlier traditions or even from the historical figure’ (p. 141). He notes that almost every element of this presentation of Cleopatra has appeared before in the reception of her story, particularly on stage and in film, cautioning that ‘none of her various portrayals has ever been a mirror of the real person’ (p. 143).
While Plutarch relates that Cleopatra was intelligent and could speak many languages, he also says that she was more remarkable for her charm and wit than her physical beauty.[] In this case, as Daugherty suggests, Lyndsey Marshal’s attractive but not impossibly beautiful Cleopatra may well be closer to the truth than the young Elizabeth Taylor’s stunning image in the 1963 film Cleopatra. Daugherty shows how the depiction of Cleopatra in Rome Episode 8 is superbly intertextual, owing much to Plutarch’s Life of Antony, to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (with a host of theatrical in-jokes), to George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, and to a number of on-screen Cleopatras, including Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, Rhonda Fleming, Sophia Loren, and Leonor Varela. Rome’s Cleopatra, as Daugherty suggests, seems to bypass the more straightforward, sympathetic character played by Elizabeth Taylor -– although there are a quite a few intertextual nods even to that version -– to embrace several earlier not-so-savoury hypersexual ‘vamp’ versions of the legendary Egyptian queen, as well as later incarnations from comedy, graphic novels, science fiction, and even pornography (pp. 147-50). Daugherty argues that this Cleopatra works well, both within the plot of Rome: Season One, and in anticipation of the greater part she will play in Season Two (p. 151).
Equally inspiring is Chapter 12, Margaret M. Toscano’s essay entitled ‘Gowns and Gossip: Gender and Class Struggle in Rome’ (pp. 153-67). Toscano identifies power as the central theme of the Rome series, but quickly points out that it is not just the power of the wealthy and the great that is of interest: ‘In spite of the centrality of major historical figures to the plot, the genius of the series Rome lies in its depiction of power as intricately complex, many-layered, always shifting, unstable, and never focused on just the privileged few’ (p. 153). She notes that it is the manner in which the series constantly moves the focus away from major events, such as historically important battles, to peripheral occurrences, like events in the lives of the ‘ordinary’ characters, that encourages the perception that anyone, no matter how insignificant, can change the course of history: ‘The camera’s lens captures so many different perspectives of Rome, high and low, interior and exterior, that we spectators begin to accept a world where the personal and political are not separable at all’ (p. 154).
Toscano views two issues usually associated with women and thus often seen as insignificant –- gowns and gossip –- as metaphors for the complexity of power in the series (p. 154). The traditionally feminine pastimes of making clothing (gowns) and gossiping are often viewed as inseparable. Both gowns and gossip –- or clothing and rumour (fama) -– are intertwined with issues of image and power, as Toscano observes (p. 154), and both these factors are shown to be important in the series. How someone is dressed indicates their social status or where they belong in society, and gossip, as fama, is synonymous with the way people are socially perceived. Such issues are significant for Vorenus and his family as they rise in social status over the course of the first season, and they also provide the battleground for the fierce warfare between the wealthy female rivals Atia and Servilia. Toscano includes a fascinating discussion of how the two chief female slaves -– Merula and Eleni -– of these grandes dames act as their doubles and agents in the warfare between them (pp. 157-59). Initially Atia and Servilia, assisted by their slaves, merely compete with each other with regard to physical adornment (dress, hair, make-up), and engage in gossip. However, subsequently the nature of their competition becomes more aggressive: using scurrilous graffiti (courtesy of Timon’s henchmen), Atia organises a slanderous gossip campaign against Servilia, which causes Caesar to break off his relationship with the latter. Immediately afterwards, we see Atia giggling about what has happened with her slave Merula (Episode 5). Servilia in turn uses weaving and gossip (she invites Octavia to weave with her, tells her evil gossip about her family, and asks the girl to find out more gossip) to infiltrate Atia’s household and use her children as pawns in her plans for revenge on Caesar, culminating in the incest debacle between Octavia and her brother (Episode 9). In retaliation for Servilia’s malignant interference in her family, Atia has her minions (led by Merula, Toscano suggests, p. 159, but orchestrated by Timon)[] physically attack Servilia in the street, drag her from her sedan, strip her to the waist,[] and hack off her hair in a public humiliation (Episode 9). As a woman, Atia knows what will hurt Servilia the most –- damage to her physical appearance. In the end, it is gossip (related by Servilia’s slave, Eleni) which brings down both Vorenus’ family and consequently, Caesar (p. 157). Toscano concludes that the ‘weaving of cloth is an on-going, subtle metaphor in this series that connects all classes of people and their assumptions, aspirations, and expectations in a complex tapestry of power’ (pp. 165f.). The arachnid-like Servilia has Atia and her extended family caught in a web of gossip and political plotting by the end of the first season, although the survivors will manage to prise themselves free in the second.
Another fascinating piece is Chapter 14, Alena Allen’s essay entitled ‘Staging Interiors in Rome’s Villas’ (pp. 179-92). Allen approvingly observes that the series’ artistic director and set designers created interior settings that cleverly reflect the political and social identities of the main characters: ‘Each character’s home provides a rich stage upon which that character expresses his unique identity as well as his place in Roman society’ (p. 179). Atia’s villa, first displayed in Episode 2, has an atrium in which the colours black and red, accented by yellow-gold, predominate (p. 181), and she also has frescoes on her walls which appear to have been inspired by the Villa of the Mysteries and other sites around Pompeii (p. 182). Allen suggests that the use of such dramatically contrasting colours as black and red in Atia’s house reflect her dominant and rather unstable personality: ‘The Pompeian color scheme of Atia’s red and black atrium and courtyard evokes the memory of the famous ruins themselves and the destructive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that caused them. Not unlike the volcano itself, Atia smolders with both passion and rage that on occasion erupts with flaming outbursts’ (p. 182).
Her rival Servilia’s villa, by contrast, which is first seen in Episode 1, is characterised by the soft muted tones of sky-blue and creamy white, and she has graceful female flying figures in stucco decorating the walls (p. 183). Compared to Atia’s dramatic home environment, Servilia’s décor suggests someone who is graceful, calm, and self-assured: ‘Whereas the color scheme of Atia’s house is bold, full of contrasts, and serves to arrest the viewer’s attention, the color scheme of Servilia’s house is subdued, but quietly asserts the wealth and elegance of its owner’ (p. 184). Significant, in terms of the political identity of both Servilia and eventually also her son Brutus, is the extensive display of the ancestor masks, lit from behind with candles, that dominate one of the walls in her atrium (p. 183). Evoking his namesake ancestor, who drove out the tyrannical kings of Rome, Servilia strives, particularly from Episode 10, to bend her somewhat recalcitrant son to her will and has finally managed, by the end of Episode 11, to convince Brutus to join the plot to kill Caesar.[] Servilia’s colour-scheme itself may also have political implications. Allen points out that white and blue-grey décor has an impressive pedigree as far as previous cinematic representations of ancient Rome go: in Stanley Kubrick’s film Spartacus (1960), the aristocratic Crassus has a villa decorated with white marble columns and small female figures on blue-stucco walls, whereas the house of his populist enemy Gracchus sports red walls replicating the frescoes found at the Villa of the Mysteries (pp. 184f.). Whether consciously copied or not, the artistic director and the set designers of Rome, Allen notes (p. 185), have perpetuated the conflict between ‘the wealthy, conservative aristocrats in their white and blue villas’ (Crassus and Servilia), and ‘the populist villas displaying red and black frescoes from the House of the Mysteries’ (Gracchus and Atia, populist through her connection with Caesar). Allen also provides interesting analyses of the décor of the villas of both Caesar and Pompey (pp. 186-88), and of Vorenus and Niobe’s modest apartment (pp. 188-90).
The final two chapters of the volume, which appear to focus on sex, bodies, and the display thereof, were both interesting and thought-provoking. In Chapter 16, ‘Spectacle of Sex: Bodies on Display in Rome’ (pp. 207-18), Stacie Raucci remarks on how the Rome series, which finds itself midway between the large-scale displays of military and political prowess traditionally associated with depictions of ancient Rome on the big screen, on the one hand, and the more personal and private concerns, like relationships and sex, that seem to consume the characters in contemporary television series, on the other, uses the open display of sex and bodies, particularly male bodies, to captivate its viewers. She argues that in Rome, the spectacle of bodies engaging in sex largely replaces the spectacle of warfare and bloodshed, observing that ‘the virtue and strength of men are contingent upon sexual prowess, and their arena is the bedroom, not just the battlefield’ (p. 208). She explains: ‘Rome, like a big screen toga epic, insists on the male body showing off its power and virtue; but, like a televised series, it stages this body in the personal and sexual sphere’ (p. 208). Often it is males of high social status whose bodies are shown off in the series.
Showing off his body and sexual abilities the most is the character of Mark Antony (James Purefoy), whom Raucci identifies as ‘the primary sex symbol of the series’ (p. 208). In the series, we never see Mark Antony doing much to support his reputation as a great military leader, but we do see him, throughout much of Season One, displaying his sexual prowess and much of his body in bed, usually with Atia, but also with others. Raucci also remarks (pp. 209f.) on the degree to which this character is shown to be at ease with his naked body, especially in the scene where Vorenus has an audience with him, and finds Antony, standing in a courtyard, completely nude, being oiled down by a slave (Episode 4). Antony is entirely at ease, even though everyone else in the scene is fully clothed, and the camera even displays complete full-frontal nudity –- showing his genitals -– for a few moments. At one point he stands with both his arms outstretched to the sides ‘in the symbolic position of a crucified victim’ (p. 210), but is happy to continue to shout orders, and, without a hint of irony, shortly thereafter informs the hapless Vorenus that he should have him ‘nailed to a cross’ for desertion. The scene, for Raucci, shows Antony’s ‘spectacle of powerful masculinity’ in the series (p. 210) –- despite being the object of various gazes, his wealthy, powerful position as a dominant male in Rome means that he is unfazed if observed by his social inferiors. Comparing this to the other full-frontal male nude that appears in the series -– that of the well-endowed slave Atia sends Servilia as a gift (Episode 6) -– Raucci astutely notes: ‘It is not the mere state of being nude which makes one vulnerable, but rather the social status of each man that determines whether he will manipulate or be manipulated through the spectacle of his sexual organs’ (p. 211).
By contrast, the character of Julius Caesar, Raucci argues (pp. 211-13), is gradually ‘unmanned’ by a number of factors in the course of the first season of Rome, so it is not surprising that we find his body ‘penetrated by both the knives of his murderers and the gaze of the viewer’ at its end (p. 211). Octavian, on the other hand, is shown to graduate to the full power of adult masculinity by means of his increasing access to sexual encounters (pp. 213f.), beginning with his loss of virginity with the prophetically–named prostitute Egeria in Episode 6, and culminating in incest with his sister Octavia in Episode 9, after which see his naked body displayed in ‘post-coital triumph’ in bed (p. 214). Taking control, Octavian proceeds to give his sister a manly, authoritative put-down, telling her that she knows what they did was wrong, not just by convention, but ‘in essence’. He also indicates that he knows that the real reason why she seduced him was to obtain information about Caesar, information that he still refuses to divulge. Raucci notes: ‘It is only after these sex scenes that Octavian takes on the male role in the household, a transformation that foreshadows his rise to power in the next season’ (p. 214). The degree to which the bodies of the lower class males, Vorenus and Pullo, are displayed also documents their rise or fall in social status and power in the series (pp. 214f.). Raucci points out that as Vorenus rises in social status over the course of the season, the more of his body is shown. His social status rises along with his improved sexual prowess in his relationship with his wife (p. 215). By contrast, Pullo, who never rises above the status of legionary in the series, is shown naked, having vigorous sex with a prostitute in Episode 2, and again with Cleopatra in Episode 8, but as the season advances and his status falls, less of his body is displayed in a sexual manner. He is even shown fully clothed in the gladiatorial arena, where he is condemned to die and from which Vorenus rescues him in Episode 11. As the now more sexually and politically powerful Vorenus helps his friend hobble away from the arena, Raucci observes, ‘Pullo is only redeemed by the association of his degraded body with that of Vorenus’ more powerful one’ (p. 215).
Sex and display are also the themes of Chapter 17, entitled ‘Vice is Nice: Rome and Deviant Sexuality’ (pp. 219-31). In this, the final contribution in the volume, Anise K. Strong looks more closely at the incest incident between Octavia and her younger brother in Episode 9. She points out that this interlude is, as far as we know, entirely unhistorical (p. 219), and that generally the Romans had similar scruples about incest to modern society, although it was often a charge flung at political enemies that needed to be discredited (p. 221).[] Strong analyses the ‘shock value’ of this incident between the Octavii in the Rome series, and advances some commercially-motivated explanations for its inclusion. Observing that, from the beginning of the twentieth century, ancient Rome has been portrayed on-screen as ‘a cesspool of extreme sexual behaviour and exotic styles of intercourse’ (p. 222), Strong suggests that the inclusion of the incest scene in the series was an attempt to boost the series’ ratings (particularly during the so-called ‘fall sweeps season’), and so outdo previous examples of sexual extremes on the small screen, both those set in ancient Rome, and those with contemporary settings (pp. 222- 25). While other television shows merely suggested or flirted with the idea of incest between siblings, Strong notes, ‘Rome crossed new barriers in the fall sweeps season of 2005 by depicting an actual sexual liaison between two blood siblings . . .’ (p. 225). However, the series was a joint British and Italian venture (although, apparently, a lot of the more shocking scenes were edited out of the Italian version), so, while I would agree that the generally high level of sexual display in the series was an attempt to draw in viewers otherwise not interested in ancient Rome, I find it hard to believe that the incest scenes were specifically aimed at shocking or titillating the American market over the ‘fall sweeps season’. Also, as Strong herself observes (p. 230), the visual imagery of incest between adult siblings of opposite genders is hardly shocking; it is no different from images of sex between any adult male and female on the screen. ‘Incest cannot be visually erotic; it can only provide shock value due to the audience’s knowledge of the characters’ consanguinity’, she asserts (p. 230). I note that the incest scenes were pretty tame in comparison to other scenes of a sexual nature in the series; we saw Octavia and her brother lying in bed and kissing, and what actually happened was merely suggested.
Strong makes much of the fact that, as she claims, the incest had little importance for the plot of the series, but seems to have been employed strictly for purposes of titillation and entertainment (pp. 228-30). However, I would argue that the incest between the Octavii is indeed significant for the plot of the series in that it shows the incredible extent to which Servilia has, at this juncture, infiltrated Atia’s household, and is using her children as pawns in her war against their mother. After being informed by one of the slaves as to what has happened, Atia slaps her children and shouts at them in outrage. Strong finds it ironic that this ‘sex queen of Rome’ should chastise her children so virulently for a sexual misdemeanour (p. 229). As a mother, however, Atia’s response is completely understandable, whatever her own sexual proclivities; incest was a taboo in Rome as in most societies, and Atia is horrified that it should have surfaced in her own family. When she discovers that her enemy Servilia is behind the incest saga, she plots her revenge, taking their interpersonal warfare to new heights of violence that will be exceeded only in the second season of Rome. Strong seems to be coming from a very conservative perspective in terms of sexual mores; other viewers, including myself, found the incest scenes, harmless as they were, mildly amusing. Christianity has placed a great dampener on sexuality in the Western world generally (sometimes a good thing, at other times not), which may explain why modern Western people often find the sexual attitudes and behaviours of other societies, including those of ancient Greece and Rome, quite shocking. I find it entirely appropriate that a television series which looks at ancient Rome should be liberal with its portrayals of sex and also with its presentation of attitudes to sex and sexuality that are different from our own.
Something missing from this volume, however, is a discussion of the large number of historical anachronisms that appear in the series. Traces of substances used as recreational drugs in modern society have been found on Egyptian mummies, and mind-altering medicines were not unknown to the ancient world, but how historically appropriate is Cleopatra’s silver opium pipe in Episode 8?[] Exotic birds appear in Episode 9: an African grey parrot might just be historically feasible (although these birds are currently only found in the wild in central Africa, their original range may have been wider), but I also spotted cockatiels, which come from Australasia, and a macaw from South America, continents which were entirely unknown to the Romans. Such issues need to be addressed, and a volume treating the second season of the Rome series, if there is to be one, will be the best place to address them.
[] See my review of this book at Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 27.
[] Monica Cyrino’s official University of New Mexico web-page displays a photo of her hugging actor Ray Stevenson, who plays Titus Pullo in the series (www.unm.edu/~fll/images/fac_mcyrino.html, last accessed 06/07/10). I am terribly jealous -– Pullo is also my favourite!
[] Episode numbers mentioned in this review refer to Rome: Season One, unless otherwise stated.
[] Not even the machinations of the young Cleopatra are able to sway Vorenus’ loyalties (Episode 8).
[] In one scene, after a frustrated Vorenus has complained about his inability to please his wife Niobe, the more experienced Pullo helpfully enlightens him about the existence and location of the clitoris, along with other advice about how to please her (Episode 3).
[] Strictly speaking, Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry. The series gets around this problem by having Vorenus tell Pullo that he was given special permission to marry Niobe (Episode 1), although the events of the first season as a whole perhaps confirm the wisdom of the prohibition.
[] ‘When last were you with a woman who wasn’t either crying or demanding payment?’, Vorenus asks Pullo (Episode 1).
[] Season Two, Episode 8. We also learn from Pullo’s prayer that Eirene’s original, Germanic name is Adela (‘noble’).
[] ‘She does not look right. She is small, thin, and has short, spiky hair’ (p. 141).
[] Plutarch Life of Antony 27.2- 4; cf. p. 143.
[] We see Timon conversing with a fellow Jew, presumably one of his henchmen, just prior to the public humiliation of Servilia (Episode 9). Timon tells this man that it is Yom Kippur (which means ‘Day of Atonement’ in Hebrew), although his interlocutor disputes that this is indeed the correct day according to the calendar. What Timon really means, presumably, is that Servilia’s own ‘day of atonement’ has come, on which she must atone for all her transgressions toward Atia’s family.
[] The stripping of Servilia to the waist by way of public humiliation (Episode 9) ironically parallels the erotic context of previous scene, in which the female slave Eirene is asked to display herself naked from the waist up by the drunken Pullo, who is madly love with her. As a slave, Eirene cannot refuse Pullo’s requests, even though, as we discover in the next episode, her real love interest at the time is a fellow slave in Vorenus’ household. As noted, Pullo kills this male slave in a jealous rage once the latter’s intended marriage to Eirene is revealed (Episode 10).
[] In Episode 12, we see Servilia and Brutus praying before their ancestor masks for help in their assassination attempt on Caesar. We then see a close-up of one of the ancestor masks (perhaps that of the original Brutus?), and the camera moves behind the mask to show its flame blazing up momentarily.
[] Strong refers to Cicero’s allegations, at Pro Caelio 36, that Clodius shared a bed with his older sister and not just because he was scared of the dark; under the Principate, Caligula was also alleged to have committed incest with his sisters (Suetonius Life of Caligula 24).
[] In Season Two, the anachronistic ‘smoking’ gets even worse, as the series probably attempts to be ‘hip’ in contemporary terms. In the Season Two, Episode 3, Atia comes across her daughter Octavia and her friend Jocasta ‘inhaling hemp’ from Macedonia through hollow reeds. Atia also gives it a try, but her abiding impression of Jocasta is that she is a bad influence on her daughter, hence her bid to add Jocasta’s wealthy father’s name to Octavian’s list of citizens to be proscribed (Season Two, Episode 6). A drugged-up Maecenas, looking suitably decadent, is seen smoking at the ‘early stages’ of a Bacchic orgy in Season Two, Episode 5. At the same party are Jocasta and Octavia, also smoking hemp (presumably) again, until Octavia is rescued by Agrippa. As her fortunes decline towards the end of the second season, Cleopatra is also seen smoking a pipe again (Season Two, Episode 12).