In 2005, the HBO channel broadcast a television series which did not go unnoticed: Rome. With a pharaonic budget of 100 million dollars, this Anglo-Italian co-production aimed to retrace a glorious page in the history of Rome, from Julius Caesar to Augustus. The intention is clearly displayed, it is a question of making the play to the cinematographic production of the genre, with the same means, the duration in addition. Served by an excellent cast and sumptuous sets, this series happily immerses us in the ruthless world of ancient Rome.
Rome, a resolutely high-end series
From the credits, we understand that this series will not have a taste of deja vu. We walk through the streets of Rome, colorful and dirty at the same time, the walls of which are adorned with graffiti rarely shown until then. From the first images, a battle scene, we are struck by the quality and realism of the reconstruction. Soldiers covered in blood and dust throw themselves furiously into a final melee against the Gauls. Immersion is immediate. The tone is set, we will not be spared the details, even the most sordid or bloody.
The first episode begins at the end of the Gallic Wars with the surrender of Vercingetorix, after his defeat at Alésia. Before a triumphant Caesar, the Gallic leader lays down his arms. We will quickly pass over the annoying appearance that the production gave him, a sort of caveman overflowing with hair and in rags, to focus on the character of Caesar. Perched on his throne and contemplating the vanquished with a touch of pride, one is struck by the resemblance of the actor to existing representations of the famous Roman. Throughout the first season, Ciaran Hinds plays a cold, cynical and not devoid of humor, ultra realistic and credible, one of the keys to the success of the series. The rest of the cast, with one or two exceptions, actually lives up to this interpretation.
In this same episode, we discover the Roman capital, colorful, cosmopolitan, teeming with activity, as majestic as it is filthy. It's hard to believe that we are on a Cinecitta set as the reconstruction is so rich in detail. A public orator proclaims the praises of Caesar, while some war prizes from Gaul are distributed to the plebs, in front of an aristocracy and senators who are concerned about the rising popularity of the Roman general. We finally discover Pompey, the one who shares power with Caesar and who has a hard time reassuring the Senate about the intentions of the one who will quickly become his rival.
The plot of the first season is laid: the end of the Roman Republic, from the crossing of the Rubicon to the assassination of Caesar during the Ides of March. The other ingredient is the concomitant story of two roman soldiers, Centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Legionnaire Titus Poulo (Ray Stevenson). This series has the particularity of granting an equal share between the prestigious history of the great figures of the time, and the daily life of the population represented by these two soldiers. These, mentioned by Caesar in one of his stories, would have actually existed, even if their story told in the series is fictitious.
Rome, between realism and fiction
In order to show us around all the strata of Roman society and to introduce us to the privacy of the plebs, the two legionaries will occupy various social positions, from a simple outcast to that of magistrate. Too much wanting to link their destiny to that of the historical characters, this part of the scenario which acts as a common thread, ends up over the episodes by becoming a little absurd and losing credibility. Regardless, the intention is good. It’s about showing us a side that has never been described on screen so far. A daily newspaper describes in great detail, often in a harsh and violent way, even if the representation which is made of it is sometimes based on very contemporary prejudices.
If historical advisers participated in the making of Rome, it was not the authors' intention to follow events and context to the letter, but to depict a Roman society, its superstitions, its customs and its art of live as they may have been at that time, with the gaze of the men and women of today, who are therefore very different from their ancient ancestors. This reserve aside, this fresco is a remarkable success on this point.
In return, Rome sometimes flirts with caricature. The pervasiveness of violence, whether in politics or in bed or on the streets, gives the impression that this was the only law that prevailed at the time, which was probably not the case, at least hardly more than today. Likewise, the female figures of the aristocracy are for the most part portrayed as perverse and unscrupulous manipulators. Cleopatra would thus have benefited from being represented in a more subtle way. The Lagid dynasty had certainly reached an advanced degree of decadence, but to transform the Queen of Egypt into a hysterical prostitute ...
A truncated series
These little details, like the freedoms taken with history, do not detract from our enjoyment. After all, this is not a documentary, but a fiction. The screenwriting choices are consistent through to the end, without giving the impression that the truth is outrageously flouted. The series is formidably effective, and devours in one go, like a movie.
The first season of Rome consists of 12 episodes. The series was originally slated to run over three seasons, but budget constraints and Rome's relative initial success forced producers to compress the latter two into one. Season 2 therefore begins with the pursuit of Caesar's assassins and ends with the final confrontation between Marc-Antoine and Octave, for the benefit of the latter. The rome series will be rewarded with numerous distinctionsn notably at the Emmy Awards.
Rome, by John Milius and Bruno Heller: Seasons 1 to 2 - Box 11 DVD or BR
- The life of the twelve Caesars, volume 1. Caesar - Augustus of Suetonius. Les belles lettres, 2003.
- BD, Dans la Rome des Césars by Gilles Chaillet. Glénat, 2004.