I’ve decided to start by looking at two different historical dramas about ancient Rome. To begin with, I’ll be looking at Rome, the 2 season HBO series that follows the last years of the Roman Republic. Its debut season was ten years ago. I’ll then focus on the 1970s BBC classic I, Claudius, which jumps forward a couple of decades to examine the life and times of the first four Roman emperors. The shows have some overlap in characters and events/background history. I have already watched these shows and am a fan of both, though I do slightly prefer one to the other. (We’ll get to that in good time.)
Disclaimer: I have a working knowledge of Roman history of this time period, but I am certainly no expert. I welcome any comments to elaborate on the historical background, as well as any general observations about the shows.
I always find the first episode of a new series an interesting insight into the show’s identity because this episode has to do a lot of different tasks that are not always conducive to a rewarding viewing experience—characters need to be introduced, plots and conflicts must be established, and tone and themes should be indicated. Since it’s all happening at once and the cast and crew are still new, the results can be a bit messy. Some of my favorite shows have first episodes that are all right as far as quality goes but comparatively speaking are pretty terrible to the rest of the series as a whole. As a result, I try not to judge a show too harshly by its debut episode because shows often have not yet established themselves that early in their run. I’m usually happy as long as the acting and writing are good, even if a little unsure or uneven, and the premise promising. But it’s always impressive when a show provides a premiere episode that doesn’t have the same awkwardness other shows have when first starting out.
I think Rome provides a nice example of a show that does a great job of introducing intriguing characters, establishing the plots and conflict that would ultimately drive its two season run, and cementing its tone. In addition to meeting all the requirements on the checklist, the episode also manages to be compelling and entertaining.
The episode opens with some contextual narration juxtaposed with images. The most important takeaway is that something rotten is in Rome. Or more, precisely, Gnaeus Pompey Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar are co-rulers of Rome, but Caesar’s popularity is a looming threat because the common people support him, and because of their support and his power, he “might make himself king.”
I know that not everyone is a fan of narration—it can sometimes serve as a lazy substitute for conveying the same information in a more subtle, organic manner. Personally, I don’t have a problem with narration as long as it is not gratuitously used. For me, the narration at the beginning of this episode works because it provides the viewer some useful context for the events that are about to unfold. True, this same information could be provided by characters within the episode itself, but I think doing so would have led to an unnecessary information dump with one character lecturing the others about what they all already know. As it is, the narration concisely gives the viewers a heads-up on what Caesar and Pompey look like and the main plot to follow in this episode, and that’s handy for viewers because there is a lot of information to digest in this initial outing.
After the prologue, we immediately skip over all that stuff we just learned for a battle involving Rome versus the warriors of Gaul. Caesar and Pompey are nowhere to be seen, but we do meet two soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Vorenus is an officer, and Pullo is decidedly not an officer. Ultimately, the scene introduces everything you need to know about these two men. Vorenus is in charge and is trying to maintain order and discipline, which is quite typical of what made Roman legions a fearsome foe, and Pullo has no intention of being orderly or disciplined because he wants to fight—even if that means punching his commanding officer in the face in the middle of a battle when he is ordered to maintain his position. The next scene lets us know whose side the Roman army takes in this dispute, as Pullo is being flogged while Vorenus warns the other men of the consequences of insubordination.
Immediately following Pullo’s punishment is a scene of ritual humiliation as the last king of the Gauls is forced to acknowledge Roman superiority, which leads to a massive outburst of celebration among the Roman soldiers. The scene is an excellent way of presenting this important tidbit of information that the war is over. Of course, that news could have been presented with Caesar giving a victory speech, but I like this technique better because it manages to convey basic information (Gaul is conquered) with some more detail about the way Caesar sees himself and the way his men see him. Caesar is obviously quite pleased with himself, based on the look on his face, and his men clearly adore him as they chant his name in celebration. As for the king of Gaul, nobody in the scene really cares what his opinion is on the subject, though his humiliation in being forced to kiss the Roman standard is palpable and heartbreaking.
Continuing the onslaught of images of punishment/humiliation, the next scene takes us to Caesar in a slave market. His business transaction, though, is interrupted by bad news from Rome. Initially, we only learn that Pompey’s wife has died in childbirth, but we soon also realize that Pompey’s wife is more than just a friend’s spouse—she is also Caesar’s daughter. Caesar is distraught, in a man of few words sort of way, but he is also obviously a planner and a politician because he also knows that he it is his responsibility to find Pompey a new wife from within the family. Speaking of Pompey, we also get a glimpse of Caesar’s popularity as a crowd chanting his praises overshadows Pompey’s mourning for his wife. And then in the first of a series of introductions, we also get a glimpse at some men who are really not pleased with all the Caesar love and also fear the repercussions for themselves. We’ll see more of them in action later.
We also meet some other key players in the next sequence as we watch a horse trader make his way through the streets with a stunning white stallion. I think the emphasis on the street is especially key here because, though the show Rome was certainly not the first depiction of ancient Rome, it is one of the only ones that depicts ordinary Romans, as well as the famous ones we still read about. In the course of his walking through the street, we also get to meet one of my favorite recurring secondary characters—the newsreader! I love the newsreader, more specifically I love his rhetorical hand gestures and the rhetorical spins he gives the news, depending on who is in charge. He’s really into reading the news today, what with updates on runaway slaves and the Senate.
From here, we continue play “Getting To Know You,” this time with a moderately graphic sex scene featuring the horse trader and a woman who sleeps with him because she wants the horse. Soon the horse trader is dismissed, and we learn the identity of this woman—Caesar’s niece Atia.
I find the show’s presentation of Atia a fascinating example of the narrative questions I want to explore more on this blog. According to most historical accounts, the real-life Atia was a demure, respectable Roman woman. As you quickly gather in Atia’s initial scenes, she is not portrayed along these lines at all, what with her screwing a horse trader to get a good deal on a horse and then cajoling her awkward and shy son, Octavian, into taking the animal north into Gaul as a victory present for Caesar. The present isn’t because she loves her dear uncle so much that she wants the rewards she can reap for being one of the first to congratulate him. I know for some people, a substantial deviation in a historical character’s depiction is not negotiable—it is never acceptable. I used to feel this way, but over the years I have moderated my stance. As long as I can see the reasoning behind why the character has been altered and it works, I am willing to go along with it because, really, we shouldn’t be getting our history lessons from entertainment. That’s just setting yourself up for disappointment. In the case of Atia’s role in the show, I will confess I think the writers eventually got a little ridiculous with her character in later episodes, but I think Polly Walker is also a fantastic actress, and she does a wonderful job of selling this version of Atia. I think the representation of Atia as an evil schemer is present because the stalwart, well-behaved Atia described in historical record wouldn’t necessarily make for compelling television.
One change that I do find a little more confusing, though I think I understand the reasoning behind it, is the decision to refer to her as Atia of the Julii. It is certainly true that she is related to the Julii family—she is Caesar’s sister’s daughter. However, according to all of the reading I have done on Roman naming practices, she would have been identified by her father’s name. Indeed, the real-life Atia was not Atia of the Julii but Atia Balba Caesonia. I think the change in name serves two purposes, though. For starters, it is a hint to readers familiar with ancient Roman culture that this is not exactly the same woman as the real-life Atia. Yes, she fulfils the same role as Caesar’s niece and Octavian’s mother, but she is an altered version of that woman. In addition, I think for the sake of plot expediency, it is probably easier for viewers unfamiliar with Roman history to know her as Atia of the Julii. A lot of characters are introduced in this opening episode, and their alliances and allegiances not only form an important component of the show’s plot but also provide a streamlined way to know who is who. The designator “of the Julii” may not be historically accurate, but it is an easy identifier if you’re a little overwhelmed at this point (only fifteen minutes in!).
On the subject of names and numerous characters and introductions, we also meet her son Octavian, the artist eventually known as Emperor Augustus. Octavian is not quite as happy with his mother’s plans for his taking the horse to Uncle Julius in Gaul, though his reasoning is a lot more rooted in logic and strategy than is common for a young man his age. As Octavian points out to his mother, Gaul is really far away and he is still pretty young, so it’s not a safe plan, by any means. Furthermore, he sees no point in it because he doubts Caesar is going to be making it to town soon, given the Senate’s poor opinion of him. In a way, this scene could qualify as a bit of an information dump. Octavian does often end up spelling out political undercurrents for other characters through a lot of the series, but usually it isn’t too distracting or weird, at least for me, because his explanations are almost always directed at people who either wouldn’t know these details or don’t care about this information, like his mother. Also, since this series traces the downfall of the Roman Republic, it also makes sense that Octavian’s shrewd nature is established early on because this is the dude that managed to outwit, outlast, and outplay everyone else on his way to becoming the first Roman emperor. His political insight is a quick way to let the audience know, “You should pay attention to him. He’s probably the smartest person in the room, even if his personal skills need a lot of work.”
The decision to name him Octavian is also an interesting one, seeing as the real-life Octavian was probably never referred to by this moniker. But I think this revision is likely for audience clarity. At this stage in his life, you can’t call him Augustus because he wasn’t known as that until he was emperor, and calling him Gaius or Octavius may confuse those who don’t realize that was Octavian’s name at this stage. Quite frankly, he went through so many name changes in his lifetime that it would probably take more time to explain the reasoning behind them to the audience than either the showrunners or audience members really care to invest in the topic. Again, this is a decision that is not historical, but I can definitely see why the writers went this route.
Meanwhile, to prove Octavian’s point about Caesar and the Senate, we get a scene inside the Senate. Not too surprisingly, the senators are arguing about what to do with Caesar. We finally get names for the men we saw earlier being sulky about Caesar in the streets. The most important and famous of which are Cato and Cicero. The men refer to Caesar as if he were a predatory wolf. Dressed in a snazzy black toga, Cato starts this metaphor, claiming that the man in question has “gorged himself like a wolf on the blood of Gaul.” In Cato’s eyes, Caesar has overstepped his role as governor of Gaul and engaged in an illegal war, so his position should be revoked. Pompey rejects this line of reasoning. Cicero then establishes his credentials as a crafty speaker by deftly interrupting Pompey and then ridiculing him. He continues the wolf metaphor, noting that it is really dumb to provoke an angry wolf, but it also makes no sense to offer a hand to it in friendship. Pompey then gets to do a little interrupting of his own to note that they also cannot hide in a tree from the wolf. Cicero’s face in response is priceless:
The Senate scene does a good job of establishing the various perspectives on what to do with Caesar with Pompey representing loyalty, Cato standing for outright repudiation, and Cicero suggesting caution but not trust. Though the scene works on this level, I think it also serves as an example of why the show is such a great study of rhetoric. We’ve seen this a little with the newsreader—and it’s a theme I will return to later in other episodes—but I find it utterly fascinating that Cato refers to Caesar as a wolf and that the other speakers, including Cicero, continue this comparison. These are all learned men—they know that a wolf is a common symbol of Rome. So what exactly are they saying in referring to Caesar as a wolf? Is it a subtle acknowledgement of his popularity with the people of Rome? When the wolf (Rome) loves a wolf (Caesar), you can’t provoke either side, but you also can’t give in. I think it speaks to a certain level of distrust these men have not just for Caesar, who they already have been openly skeptical about, but also the people of Rome, who they have also shown disdain for. This dislike for the people of Rome does raise the question of whether their opposition to Caesar is rooted in true fear of his plans or just the desire to maintain their own power and authority. And on a certain level I also wonder if the showrunners intend this discussion of the wolf as a stand-in for Rome itself. Does Rome itself have the qualities of the vicious wolf? Such a reading is certainly hinted at in the brief scenes of Gaul’s subjection at the beginning of the episode. (I would be remiss, though, in not also acknowledging that nations at all time periods have behaved similarly toward the defeated, so it’s not like Rome is necessarily doing anything different than anybody else.)
After the rowdy Senate session, we get to see more sights on the Roman street, this time a play Pompey is attending. We get introduced to a demure Roman woman, Cornelia, who is there with her prestigious Senator father, before she announces she must leave because a “lewd woman” is on stage, but the real meat of this scene is how the senators continue to pressure Pompey to forsake Caesar. Before, Pompey’s refusal was staunch, and he vocally defended his friend. But now he frames his refusal in more pragmatic terms: he cannot “openly betray” a friend.
We continue meeting new people as Octavian jets off to Gaul—and is none too happy about it—and his sister Octavia readily sees how upset he is, though his mother brushes off her concerns. As I mentioned earlier, alliances are important in the world of Rome, and right away we see that Octavia and Octavian certainly have a closer bond than either of the two siblings seem to have with their mother.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Pompey learns that the horse he wanted has been purchased by Atia and sent to Gaul for Caesar, and that really pisses him off. His specific objection is kind of childish, but it boils down to what has been established from the beginning of this episode: Caesar gets everything now. He has the glory, he has the affection of the people, he has aristocratic roots, and now he has this awesome horse that was supposed to be Pompey’s.
The scene immediately cuts to a furtive mission back at Caesar’s camp when some blue men break in and steal the eagle standard. This man was believed to be one of the culprits:
Then before we get any more information on the theft or the next Blue Man Group performance, Caesar has a visitor, and we get to meet another famous person: Brutus.
I will admit, I literally gasped when his name was mentioned because, well, Caesar and Brutus hanging out together does not bode well usually. But right now they’re both happy to see each other, and they exchange pleasantries. The pleasantries are interrupted by a certain Mark Antony. We’ve seen Antony a couple of brief times earlier in the episode, nonchalantly eating an apple as Pullo is whipped, being on standby as the king of the Gauls is humiliated, and kind of failing at consoling Caesar over his daughter’s death. But this is our first proper introduction. And this is one of my favorite scenes in the entire first episode, primarily because Antony is one of my favorite characters in the show and also because any scene with him and Caesar or him and Brutus is usually amazing. So naturally a scene with Antony, Caesar, and Brutus is off-the-charts amazing.
Here, it is also comedy gold as Antony is boisterous and crude, Brutus finds him repulsive but tries to pretend otherwise, and Caesar admits that Antony “has a vulgarian streak” but he keeps the man around because “he likes to fight.” I think this statement pretty much sums up all we need to know about both Antony and Caesar. Sure, Antony may not be the type of guy you’d take to a tea dance, but he’s in his element in battle. Caesar’s a lot more reserved, but he is not offended because he needs this type of person around. Meanwhile, Brutus just finds Antony’s lack of breeding appalling and specifically focuses on how shocking it is that he acts this way but comes from a good family. (On a similar theme to what I was writing about earlier, I also find it interesting that the writers don’t use the Latin version of Mark Antony’s name—Marcus Antonius. In a way, I feel like it sticks out a little, given how Latin the other characters names are. But I also think the abbreviated version rolls off the tongue more readily and ensures more immediate name recognition for the character, so it works for me.)
In addition to getting some nice character establishment for all of the aforementioned characters, we also learn a little more about the blue man theft. Namely that Antony has been tasked with finding it and that Caesar confides in Brutus that his men are very angry at the loss, and he fears mutiny. One thing I like about this scene and the surrounding mystery about the eagle is the show illustrates to us that this is a big deal based on character reactions to this news, but the writers don’t spell that out to you by having someone explain why it’s a big deal. That would be boring and also weird. They’re all Romans—they know that it was deeply shameful to lose one’s standard and that it must be returned to them, no matter the cost or effort it takes to retrieve it, so no character needs to tell another character that! (Seriously, go read about how long the Romans looked for some of their legion standards that were lost in battle. They meant business when it came to standards.) I appreciate that they don’t over explain the issue and trust that the audience is smart enough to follow along.
We then get a brief scene of Octavian’s worst fears coming to life—being kidnapped by Gauls—before we return to two people we haven’t focused on since the beginning—Centurion Vorenus and Legionary Pullo. Antony recruits Vorenus for the job of retrieving the eagle because the latter is supposed to be clever. He then demonstrates his cleverness—and his pragmatic ruthlessness—by crucifying men from Gaul until one of them confesses who took it.
Vorenus then has Pullo released from the brig he has spent the majority of the episode languishing in to help him retrieve the eagle. I must confess, I thought that was a little too pat at first, considering Pullo’s previous actions. But not to fear—Vorenus picked him precisely because he was disgraced because he doubts they will ever find the standard. He figured it would be more efficient to pick an assistant who was already in trouble. That perversely made sense to me and no longer seemed like a forced pairing for the sake of plot drama. The two then embark on a journey/investigation that involves lots of odd couple banter. This type of relationship is a common one in fiction and can easily get tedious to me, but I thought Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson had excellent chemistry from the start. By this point when I first watched the episode, I was enjoying all of the political and historical scheming, but what really sold me on the show was how enjoyable it was to watch them try to find the eagle and not kill each other. I would so watch a spin-off that just revolved around Vorenus and Pullo traveling from one Roman province to another, solving crime, having adventures, kicking ass, taking names, bickering like small children.
The show then switches back to Rome where things develop quickly. Brutus is back home and conveys a letter from Caesar to Servilia, Brutus’ mother, and we learn that she and Caesar are more than just pen pals.
We also learn that politics and devotion to Rome is supposed to be a Brutus family thing, though he himself is pretty apathetic. He conveys to Pompey the news about the standard and morale in Caesar’s camp before he insults Pompey about his low social status. It’s kind of a repeat about his feelings toward Antony, though I daresay Pompey would be better behaved at a tea dance than Antony (but not likely to be as entertaining).
We then also learn that Caesar has written to Atia, asking her to find a young woman in the family to serve as a suitable replacement bride for Pompey. Atia immediately decides that her own daughter, Octavia, would be perfect, even if it means forcing her to divorce her husband, requiring her to sit through a very tedious dinner where Pompey talks in inane detail about military strategy, and finally pimping her out to Pompey as soon as they’ve discussed the betrothal.
As this subplot is unfolding, Pullo and Vorenus retrieve the standard while also rescuing Octavian and determining who the real thief was—Pompey’s slave. Overall, I think this is a great scene, especially because it doesn’t show you how they defeated everyone in the group. The camera catches up with our heroes as they’re finishing off the last of the group because really, how they won isn’t quite as important to moving the story along so much as noting that they did win. Besides we already saw the guys in action at the beginning of the episode, so there’s no real need to prove their credentials as fighters. We also get more of Octavian being the voice of political intuition by explaining to the boys why Caesar isn’t too worried about losing the eagle, though others like Pompey would read the situation as much more dire for morale. We get further confirmation of this—which also serves to remind us to pay attention when Octavian makes political predications because the kid knows what he is talking about—when they arrive at camp and it becomes clear that Caesar was hoping Pompey would turn on him first, so he wouldn’t have to be the one to make the first move. We also see that the story about Caesar’s men being mutinous is not at all true, as they continue to shower him with praise and adoration. This contradiction of Caesar’s statement to Brutus is never directly addressed by any of the characters, but it’s a nice touch that hints at an essential component to Caesar’s personality. He may love Brutus like a son, but he still has no qualms about using him as a means of disseminating false information concerning soldier morale to Pompey.
We also see Caesar being impressed and shocked with Octavian’s journey to see him. I found the timing of this incident intriguing from a narrative standpoint. According to my readings, Octavian did impress Caesar by arriving in his military camp after some turmoil, like a shipwreck, but this didn’t occur until several years later. Technically, it would have been more historically accurate to leave Octavian on the sideline at this point; however, to do so would have meant sidelining a main character until much later in the season. I think it makes sense, then, to speed up the timeline on when Octavian started impressing Caesar and being a figure of interest in the story.
In regard to the resolution of the mystery: When I first watched the episode, I assumed the Gauls had stolen the standard, but the true identity of the thief is telegraphed pretty blatantly with Pompey telling his slave that he has an extra errand for him in Gaul before the scene immediately cuts to the theft. For me, the only part I dislike is I think it seems a little too pat that the slave they catch is tattooed as Pompey’s slave. I honestly don’t know if that was a Roman practice, and my objection isn’t on historical grounds—though I would be curious if anyone had details on whether the Romans tattooed slaves with owner’s names. For me, it just seems a bit silly for Pompey to send this guy on a secret mission to unsettle Caesar’s men and risk having the plot backfire if he is caught and is literally branded as a Pompey minion. I feel like his connection to Pompey possibly could have been conveyed in another less obvious way, though I do give the writers kudos for picking a visually striking method that makes the man immediately recognizable. So, though I still think it was a bit much to have him identified by Caesar’s men so readily, the ensuing repercussions—in which Caesar sends back the guy’s head along with the ominous warning that he is wintering his legions closer to Italy—work in building dramatic tension for the next episode.
Of course, by now Pompey’s loyalties have shifted, so he furthers their political game of tit-for-tat. Though he had previously taken Atia up on her offer to spend the night with Octavia, he then marries the sedate, theater-hating woman, Cornelia, from the beginning of the episode. Naturally, Atia and Octavia are pretty mad, and they vow revenge.
We conclude the episode with a close-up on a recurring symbol—the legion’s eagle standard on the move with the army as they leave their camp in Gaul en route to their winter quarters that are much closer (and thus more threatening) to Rome.
For me, this is yet another example of the show using a traditional symbol of Rome—in this case an eagle—and showing it as a threat to Rome itself. The concluding note for the episode is a warning that Rome is its own worst enemy. It’s a sobering message but one that is important throughout the entire series.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I think this debut episode does a great job of not only entertaining viewers but also giving them the information they need to follow the show—characters that immediately have some defining characteristics and motivation, a compelling plot (or two or more) to follow, a rising conflict that must be addressed, and a distinct tone. My only real complaint is I do feel like the episode was a little overstuffed with plots and characters. Kind of like when you’re at somebody’s wedding, and you just get introduced to so many people and you lose track of who they are and how you’re supposed to know them.
I think the writers did a remarkable job of packing a lot into the fifty or so minutes they had and also still making it interesting and coherent, but I think it may have been even more beneficial to either hold off on the introduction of characters not essential for this episode or to have had a longer running time to flesh some of these points out.
Otherwise, I think it’s an excellent example of how to make a gripping, effective debut episode for a television show.