This huge series was originally planned to run for five seasons, but was cancelled after two because it was too expensive even for HBO. But the writer-showrunner knew it was coming after the first season, so he packed all the planned story into the second season. Which doesn’t seem to have hurt it. We found it to be addictive, and binged the whole thing in not much more than a week.
I was a little rusty on my Roman history, so I looked up a few things. The broad sweep of history here seems to be fairly accurate, but the inner lives and day-to-day stories of these real people is naturally open to debate. Who knows if Brutus was the rather weak man we see here? But we do know he didn’t die as we see here, committing suicide by fighting alone with Octavian’s troops. He offed himself by running into his sword held by two of his own troops.
It seems obvious that Caesar was ambitious, and we know that he had an affair with Cleopatra, but the rest is just up to the writer. I did look up one real person, Cicero, and it seems he was nothing like the craven, back-stabbing, cowardly politician we see here.
So I decided to just sit back and relax and treat all the characters as fictional. And like I said, they didn’t mess with major historical events. SPOILER WARNING: Caesar is assassinated right on the Senate floor by about a dozen conspirators, including his old friend Brutus!
So we have a lot of political intrigue among the upper classes, including a drawn-out cat fight between what has to be the two most vicious women in Rome, one on the side of Caesar’s faction, one the mother of Brutus. Again, these are fictional, though based on real women.
But the main characters here are clearly made up, though they used the names of two real soldiers. They serve to take us through the story from a less lofty point of view. There is Lucius Vorenus, a former centurion played by Kevin McKidd, the staunchest, most Dudley-Do-right character I’ve seen in a long time. He deeply believes in the law as laid down by the gods and the Senate, the Fightin’ 13th, his old legion, loyalty at all costs, and his own honor. Beside him is his old buddy from the 13th, Titus Pullo, a foot soldier best described in this quotation from Wikipedia: “A friendly, upbeat, devil-may-care soldier with the morals of a pirate, the appetites of a hedonist, and a total lack of personal responsibility, who discovers hidden ideals and integrity within himself.” He’s the one Lee and I were most favorably disposed to, though he really is a rascal who does some bad things. He has the most interesting character arc.
These two are implausibly there for many of the history-making events that we see, but no matter. It’s a good device to bring us down to earth and away from the nasty machinations of the upper class and the politicians. One of my favorite bits is the implication that he was the actual father of Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar, Cleopatra’s son, murdered by Octavian because he might have been Caesar’s son. Roman history is fascinating.
This being HBO, there is plenty of nudity, plenty of sex, and lots of violence. The casual brutality is shocking, as is the tendency of these aristos to couple right in front of the slaves. Basically, slaves didn’t exist in the same reality, I guess, and so didn’t have to be taken into account except when it came time to beat them or to sell them.
An interesting thing I hadn’t been aware of. I thought I recalled that Octavian was gay, so I looked him up. It seems that the Romans had no real concept of homosexuality. That is to say, they didn’t think same-sex relations were wrong or even unusual in any way. Men were expected to have relations with other men from time to time. There were certainly men who preferred only other men, but who could tell? And who cared? The Romans portrayed here are very casual about sex. I don’t know how accurate that is, but it sure makes for interesting stories.
Lastly, I have to acknowledge something that usually passes un-remarked. The opening credits to this series are dazzling. They are animated graffiti, based on the graffiti that were so much a part of Roman life, like the ones that still survive in Pompeii. Paper was not cheap back then, so opinions were painted on walls, both in words and in pictures. It seems that a lot of them were pretty bawdy. Others were inflammatory. Those walls functioned like Internet rumors, and could destroy reputations or political careers. How interesting!