Monday, August 29, 2005

Roma Victa

HBO’s new TV drama, ROME is shaping up to the one of the most exciting shows of the fall. The TV series is set during the twilight of the Roman Republic when Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar ended their personal and political friendship and the two friends turned against each other. The show is amazingly rich in its historical accuracy and detail. Rome itself isn’t CG or a bunch of sandlots and half completed sets. HBO’s production notes indicated that ancient Rome was recreated with several acres of fully realized sets including a magnificent senate chamber, interiors of villas and the Roman forum. There is Caesar of course, but his character his there as a historical anchor. The drama isn’t beholden to Caesar of myth and legend. Caesar in episode 1 is treated as an ambitious and powerful general of the Republic of Rome and co-consul with Pompey. He is merely one of at least two giants vying for total control of the republic.

The semi-fictional narrative also manages to weave in the real stories of the other notables of Roman history from that time. Marc Antony, Octavian, Cato among others are featured. Brutus has a great scene in the first episode where he speaks about his admiration of how political rivalries are settled by the barbarians.

Now, if our senate conducted business in the German style I should certainly go watch… just swords and daggers.

In the same scene Pompey agrees with Brutus noting it was an “excellent idea” that the Germans settled their disputes in a battle to the death. Both these lines are such great foreshadowing for what is to come, and is really a nod to the history buffs in the audience, and not an insult to their intelligence as Hollywood has repeatedly done with movies like Troy or Kingdom of Heaven.

The one battle scene in the movie breaks with recent Hollywood tradition by actually making sense. Great pains is taken by the producers to show the orderly movement of legionaries from the front of the line to the back of the line. The system is a never ending conveyer belt of human mass where, with the blow of a whistle, frontline troops rotate to the back to rest for a few minutes while the man behind him take his place. This reminds viewers that Rome was a great power not because of shiny armor, broomstick helmets, or the scarlet cloaks of the centurions. Rome was great because its army was better equipped, better trained and more orderly than the barbarians they fought. Rome had a way of fighting that was simply superior to its enemies.

This period in Rome is certainly a time of historical giants. There is the great general Pompey and the great soldier Marc Antony. Towering above even these great men was Caesar himself. Yet despite the collection of potential protagonists, HBO’s Rome isn’t about the cult of personality of one central hero. There is no Maximus in Rome, no Balian in Jerusalem. No overpaid Hollywood star that is contractually required to be prominently featured to the detriment of the story. There is simply a great fictional drama running in lockstep with real history, around real historical figures, doing and saying things they were recorded to have done. There is no misappropriation of motives or an appropriation of ancient Roman history to the modern. Under a lesser talent and or lesser network, ROME would have been titled CAESAR and his ‘illegal war’ in Gaul would probably have been alluded to as the war in Iraq with the script painting Caesar as George W. Bush himself.

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