As a generally very picky person, there are very few TV series that I want to watch again and again and again. HBO’s Rome is definitely #1 on that list though – even above all my favourite non-classics related shows. It’s not for the violence and sex – if that’s what you’re looking for, I hear the newer series Spartacus has gratuitous amounts of that. If you want decent content, on the other hand, you’ll find yourself re-watching Rome as you expand your knowledge of ancient culture and history. Okay, maybe not the history quite so much – they do tend to take a fair amount of creative license with the details. Certain characters live beyond their historical expiry date, while others have factually inaccurate (but thoroughly entertaining) encounters, and events are glossed over, placed out of order or sometimes skipped altogether. But if you ever wonder what it would have been like to live during the times of Caesar and Pompey, of Antony and Cleopatra, this TV series paints a vivid picture of life as a Roman citizen – both rich and poor.
Parallel to the more recognizable names (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Cicero) you encounter an abundance of common people. They wear dingy clothing and walk through run-down neighbourhoods, near soot-stained walls that are often laden with rude political graffiti. They struggle with awkward family dinners, and love, and bringing home enough to pay the bills. And before you think I’m getting all mushy, don’t worry – they kick some serious ass.
Time and legend have crystallized the historical characters into larger-than-life heroes, but in Rome they, too, are portrayed in such a way as to emphasize how human they were. Cicero, the great orator, speaks his very eloquent and wise words like he’s supposed to, but his pompousness often hides fear, because he’s really not much of a strong fighter when push literally comes to shove. The infamous Marc Antony is just a cocky, self-assured jock, but his arrogance and obnoxiousness are hilarious and prevent the over-dramatic tendencies common in many ‘historical’ shows and movies.
Aside from absolutely brilliant, three-dimensional characters, HBO also does a fantastic job of looking after little details. You will not catch them all on the first viewing, or even the second. The fourth time I watched the show, I noticed in one very brief scene that a character walks into a brothel, and the doorway is marked by a specific kind of lamp that signals the type of ‘business’ that’s run there. In another scene, someone is sculpting a clay portrait of Pompey, which is meant to gently reference an actual portrait bust of the great warlord. The first time I watched Rome was before I started taking Classics courses, when I knew nothing about the real history or culture. Each year I would end up watching it again, and notice a few nods to material I had just learned – like the lighthouse of Alexandria in the background of a scene.
Most non-classicists tend to romanticize the ancient world. It’s perfectly natural to do that, since the highlights get emphasized so much – the brilliance of Greek philosophy, the magnificent beauty of Greek architecture, the eloquence of Roman oratory, the organization of the Roman military. But the life of your average Joe (or Gaius, I suppose) was far from glamorous, and Rome does an excellent job of portraying the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, forgotten details while still maintaining the grandeur and epic nature of prominent historical events and characters.