The series producer of the BBC’s new docudrama Ancient Rome – the Rise and Fall of an Empire is no doubt an honourable man. He claims previous films “have tended to ignore the real history and chosen to fictionalise the story”. He overlooks I, Claudius, first shown in 1976, recycling now on BBC Four — and still the benchmark for source-based historical drama on TV.
This new series is certainly keeping teams of fine British actors in work, not to mention craftsmen in Bombay who made 100 swords, and other producers of fabric, dyes, shoes, prosthetic moulds and fake blood “of various degrees of thickness and colour” (yes, yes!). They also filmed in Morocco and Bulgaria, places chosen for the light, for Roman ruins that can be excitingly computer-enhanced and for cheap, pre-existing film-sets. Thus Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven set is used to re-create ancient Jerusalem; Roman Jerusalem was unavailable because Vespasian’s son Titus destroyed it — “accidentally”, said he — when zealots were infighting bitterly, while trying to massacre the Roman invaders who wanted to rule the world . . . Sounds familiar? It is fashionable to draw comparisons between Ancient Rome and modern politics; to its credit, this series lets us notice the parallels for ourselves.
The episodes were produced by different teams. It shows. Gracchus (episode 3) and Vespasian (episode 4) work better than Nero, Caesar and Constantine (episodes 1, 2 and 5).
(I was not sent the last episode, but I want to watch it. Can’t say fairer than that.) The producers avoid the talking-heads style, though they use literature and the advice of modern historians. Once they fill up with battle and crowd scenes, the formula of self-contained one-hour dramas doesn’t give enough scope. Although the BBC-HBO drama series Rome was fiction, for all its nudity and dormouse canapés, it gave a clearer depiction of the Caesar-Pompey rivalry.
Here, the premise is six key moments of Roman history. As with all TV lists, you can quibble about their choice. The I, Claudius emperors are omitted, probably on grounds of over-familiarity. It is assumed that we know the Romans were Top Nation; the least successful episodes merely show people fighting to be Top Man.
They insist on starting with Nero. Here, revisionist modern historians are fighting the sensationalism of the old Romans. The moderns soon lose. Without even suggesting that Nero was a troubled kid from a dysfunctional family, he’s in there wanting art to triumph over power; hauling buckets in the Great Fire of Rome; rebuilding the city. The Romans themselves said Nero started the fire to grab space for his Golden House; that’s not mentioned. This is Nero the Hero. O dearo.
Fortunately, the evil genius Tigellinus corrupts him, then the writers throw themselves happily into mad-eyed megalomania.
Chronologically, we should begin with the rocky moment in the Republic when Tiberius Gracchus first used the mob in a struggle to undermine Senate corruption and introduce land reforms. It is the start of politics-by-assassination (necessitating from Props “six fake daggers for stunts and stabbing, of both the retractable-blade and rubber variety”). The Gracchus episode makes the best attempt at showing Roman life — siege, villa, perfume bottles, hunting, a wedding — all delicately incorporated. But the weakness of the approach comes out sharply. Tiberius Gracchus was the first man over the walls of Carthage — the battle is good visual TV, with one breathtaking moment when the young tribune stands, momentarily alone in enemy territory, his jaw dropping as he gazes over the doomed city. But Tiberius’s equally famous younger brother, Gaius, is ignored, though ten years after Tiberius’s reforms ended with his murder, Gaius again tried to bring in reforms, and himself died violently. If history hands you some suspenseful repetition, why waste it? And then there is their mother: Cornelia was a Roman heroine for the exemplary way she, as a widow, gave her sons education, military training and moral rigour. Her contribution to their subsequent eminence was recognised. This is important. That the Romans had heroines is a revealing aspect of their psyche — and surely part of their appeal. I gently suggest it is one reason why the Romans, rather than other ancient people, have such an enduring appeal.
We don’t see many women in this series. The producer claims Nero’s relationship with his wife Poppaea, whom he kicked to death while pregnant and replaced with a castrated slave, is a “kind of love story” . . . (Tunisian sunstroke?). Love gets short shrift, as do trade, slavery, art, engineering, and much else that we generally see as Roman achievement.
What the Empire was and how it worked for most inhabitants are inadequately addressed. However, because we know so much about Roman domestic and working lives, as well as their politics, people relate to the Romans, their lifestyle and their civilisation. This series concentrates on adventure, intrigue and characters, but the largely forgiving audience for anything Roman will find the “stories” as gripping as the makers claim.
There is pleasing material here. The filming is good, the dialogue sounds real, the sets work, the military scenes will delight many. But if they stick with their eccentric programming, we’ll be jerked about maniacally: AD64, 54BC, 154BC, AD69, AD312, Fall of Rome. Nero wants to destroy war and power before we have seen them. Carthage falls and Gracchus lays foundations for empire when three episodes have established it so decisively that the Judaeans have rebelled against it. The historians who advised are sensible women, so do the men who produced and wrote this series have some evil genius controlling them? This is history on the Eric Morecambe principle: all of the moments — but not necessarily in the right order!
Not sure when this one is on (or going to be) ... it doesn't seem to be mentioned at the BBC site.
UPDATE: A piece from the Independent gives a few more details on when this one's on, an (perhaps) about the slant one can expect to see:
America's entanglement in Iraq bears a striking resemblance to ancient Rome's Punic wars, according to the author of a new book on the Roman Empire.
Simon Baker, who also produced BBC2's forthcoming series Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, on which his book is based, claims the decision by the greatest civilisation in the ancient world to attack its Mediterranean rival Carthage mirrors America's actions in the build-up to the second Gulf War.
He said yesterday: "You have hawkish Roman neo-conservatives saying that Carthage was a menace to democracy, 'weapons inspectors' being sent over, cooked-up dossiers exaggerating the threat, and huge debate at home about the wisdom of war.
"The arrogance of power... has a strong resonance with America today... And just as with America before the second Gulf War, there was a real argument about the best way of extending political control."
The television series, which airs next week, took two years to make. The action was so gory that on the first day of shooting 20 litres of fake blood were used.