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Issue Date:  October 14, 2005

The three joys of 'Rome'

Caesar; Cicero and crew come to life on HBO


The first joy in watching the HBO/BBC epic saga “Rome” is the revitalization of one’s Jesuit high school education.

Here they are: the orator Cicero, with the trace of a stammer; Mark Antony, who is often followed by a dwarf whom he pets like a dog; Cato, his face contorted into a snarl; Pompey -- like his name, ponderous and pathetic; and Julius Caesar, who here is a little too short to “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus” but who emits that ruthless will to bring the known world to heel.

The second joy is the visage of ancient Rome itself. Filmed on a set outside modern Rome, the city emerges as an amalgam of the cinema Romes of “Quo Vadis” and “Cleopatra” and today’s Bronx or Jersey City. The public buildings, senate and temples loom over filthy, crowded streets; the fat herald brays the day’s news, with commercial announcements, in the marketplace; the middle-class people huddle in their back-street dwellings; the poor huddle in alleyways; and the rulers, when not plotting to murder one another, loll in purple-draped villas, soak themselves in saunas, have sex and beat their slaves. In separate scenes, Mark Antony and Caesar’s niece Atia appear full frontal, completely nude. But not gratuitously -- their undress fits their character. As in classical sculpture, Antony’s physique symbolizes his leadership. Atia’s beauty is her power.

Commercially, HBO has taken a risk. To hold their subscribers while they await the restoration of “The Sopranos,” they have produced a costly 12-episode epic, which, if it is popular enough, might continue. They have also created a sort of “Sopranos: 52 B.C.” As the plot twists, viewers ask who will get “whacked” tonight -- even though our high-school Latin and Shakespeare courses have already told us how it all will end.

Amid the joys, there are a few problems. Even with the help of the reviewer’s chart with pictures, arrows and dotted lines explaining who is married to, descended from, sleeping with or politically allied with whom, it’s sometimes tough to figure out who’s who, what’s going on and what the heck she just whispered to him. Ancient Romans apparently all sputtered upper-class British with their lips closed.

But even when we miss the words, we are held by the voices and faces of this fine British cast. When Caesar’s ambition turns into brutality, we see his “sterner stuff” in the twist of a lip and the fix of his eyes.

The story so far: Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) returns from victory in Gaul and declares himself dictator. Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), whose legions are too far from Rome, retreats to Greece, where he prepares to recapture the capital. When a truce fails, Caesar pursues Pompey and leaves Antony (James Purefoy) in charge. The central fictional character is the centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), who retires from Caesar’s army after eight years in Gaul to return to his wife, who had thought him dead and has given birth to a son through a liaison with her sister’s husband. Vorenus is a principled man who is kind to slaves and who prays to the gods with the piety of a traditional Italian Catholic. Penniless, he returns to work, first as bodyguard to a Mafia-like mobster whom he leaves rather than obey an order to cut off a man’s arm. Finally he joins Antony’s army.

Among the subplots: Atia (Polly Walker) is mother of the boy Octavian and Antony’s lover. She forces the preteen Octavian (Max Pirkis) to a brothel to “become a man.” She tempts Antony to betray Caesar and make himself king and her queen. Antony, leaving her, replies that he finally sees how wicked she really is.

The second scheming woman is Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), mother of Brutus (Tobias Menzies) and Caesar’s lover. One day, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia is being carried through the downtown streets, the walls of which are plastered with graffiti depicting every variety of sexual intercourse, and she comes face to face with a picture of her husband in a sexual encounter with Servilia. She hurries home. Caesar tells Servilia they are through.

Plutarch, who writes a century later than the events he recounts in his Lives, describes Caesar as “distempered in the head.” He has epilepsy but fights his weakness by fighting wars. As he beats his mistress, we see the real man, driven by no moral principle other than the lust for power.

“Rome” is a gripping, though squalid, story, and I hope HBO and BBC will keep “Rome” going for another hundred years -- at least until Peter and Paul arrive. Meanwhile, for us, the third joy of TV’s “Rome” is the first joy of history study: sensing the parallels to our religious and political lives today.

To assume dictatorial powers, Caesar needs the blessing of the religious establishment. The corrupt high priest is easily seduced by the flattery of the ruler and in a religious ceremony releases a flock of doves as a sign that the gods approve. In another scene, young Octavian, who has the face of an angel and the conscience of his great uncle and who we know will eventually be the Emperor Augustus, orders the legionary Titus (Ray Stevenson), a friend of Vorenus, to torture a prisoner to make him talk. Titus, though he has killed in battle, replies that he does not know how to torture.

Octavian says: “Cut off his thumb.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2005

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