Thursday, February 15, 2007

Misunderestimated Roman

Octavian was Julius Caesar's adopted son, callow,
juvenile, and way over his head in Roman politics.

THOSE ROMANS. This is just a plug. The HBO series Rome is in its second and final season. I guess it's my month for heresy, but this production surpasses the Masterpiece Theater icon I Claudius by a mile. I'm not saying I Claudius wasn't great. It was. But Rome is better. Don't miss it.

There has always been an interesting hole in Roman history. There is the Rome of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which gives us compelling portraits of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. Then there  is Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, in which we once again focus on Antony. Octavian is a major character, to be sure, but he is cast in the dramatic role of villain, though he displays a fair amount of humanity, going so far as to permit the lovers to be buried side by side.

What's missing is the extraordinary story of Octavian the political prodigy, the teenager who responded to the assassination of Julius Caesar so adroitly that he bested some of the most famous characters in recorded history, including Mark Antony, Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero, to become the first emperor of Rome and the architect of the Pax Romana, the longest period of relative peace Rome would enjoy before its eventual downfall almost 500 years later.

If there were a 20th century Shakespeare who chose his topics like the first one, we'd have plays about Robespierre and Louis XVIII, but none about Napoleon Bonaparte. That's the scale of the omission. To put it in perspective, Caesar Augustus is the only Roman Emperor mentioned by name in the Bible. Yet where have we heard his story before? In Shakespeare, he was an afterthought and a foil, and in Robert Graves's I Claudius he was a cheerful but moribund symbol of the calm before the storm. Shakespeare lacked interest because he wasn't a tragic character; he was, unlike Napoleon and other subsequent pretenders, a winner. The result? Writers aren't interested in his story.

HBO's Rome rushes into this void with a dramatization of perhaps the greatest political tour de force of all time, the process by which the frail teenage nephew of Julius Caesar accomplished his personal transformation from Octavianus Balba to Caesar Augustus, deftly turning one Roman warlord after another into pawns and victims of his own quest for absolute power over the known world.

Octavian is a far more interesting character than Caesar Augustus. In the scripts of Rome, one can see, and believe, that the titans of the time continually assumed they could manipulate and intimidate him. Cleverly, Rome reinforces this illusion by depicting his mother and sister as blind to the intellect by which he performed the most effective political calculus ever recorded in antiquity, seamlessly creating and breaking alliances as changing circumstances dictated, even among members of his own family. Those who insist that women never wielded power before c. 1970 will both object to and adore the character of Atia, Octavian's mother. Interestingly enough, the woman who plays Atia, Polly Walker, does resemble her.


The triumph of Rome is that this incredible and heretofore untold story is complemented by extraordinary characters and subplots that make the Roman Empire more vivid, enticing, and repellent than any of Hollywood's (or  PBS's) epic efforts. Some liberties have been taken, to be sure, since history is kinder to the mothers of Octavian and Brutus (Servilia) than HBO allows, but these departures are a small price to pay for the picture we get of a pagan world in which murder is matter of fact, beheaded chickens forgive all, sex is private from the patrician neighbors but not from slaves or in orgies, and the origins of today's mafia are evident in the arrangements between the senate and the plebeian "dons" who managed labor for the ports and commercial districts of the city.

And we haven't mentioned the color. Rome paints the ancient world in reds and blues and greens and golds we never associated with the worn marble and cement of ruins. And graffiti. What do you suppose they painted on the walls back then, before there was a Christian Right? Go take a look. If you don't understand, ask Pullo. It's all there, as early as the credits.

Sunday nights at 9 o'clock.

Plug finished.

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