Historical Exotica

Imperial Rome, at the very sound of the words, my Hollywood conditioned brain conjures up images of towering columns, wide arches, toga clad middle aged men declaiming on marble floors while just outside, formidable armor clad centurions stand guard. The image is one that has been formed over a century, the 20th century, by big budget Hollywood movies.

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Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) enters Rome

Perhaps the most famous example would be the Elizabeth Taylor starring 1963 film, Cleopatra. Roman ruins are grand, so Hollywood assumed the characters and stories they should tell must be equally grand. so it was that Cecil B Demille and his successors created an image of Rome. Grand marble steps leading to huge austere buildings with hundreds of cheering extras. Everything had to be big, everything had to be IMPERIAL.

The marble clad immensity of Rome

In the 21st century, shows like HBO’s Rome did much to dispel the white marble image. They presented a grittier, sensuous and more colorful Rome. HBO correctly realized that much of the morality taken for granted in a modern setting would be absent in the time they were portraying and dispelled with much of the baggage Holly-Rome had accumulated.

HBO’s Rome

But then, they seems to have assumed that emotion and ambition would be naked and raw. The resulting drama, though edgy is disturbing just because the characters look so utterly enthralled to their own desires. Something a basic stoic education would have instructed them to temper.

This brings me to one final portrayal. In 1976, the BBC turned Robert Graves 1934 novel I, Claudius into a TV mini-series. This show made before CGI and on an evidently shoe string budget couldn’t match the sets of either of the preceding portrayals. Actors pranced about in bedsheets in claustrophobic studio sets with painted columns and cardboard marble. There obviously couldn’t afford a horde of extras so there are no crowd or legion scenes.

So that leaves only one thing to focus attention on, the story and the characters. There are a couple of shockers here. First is the number of young actors who went on to become big ticket names. Aside from Derek Jacobi in the title role, there is a surprisingly youthful and hairy Patrick Stewart. Also equally surprising are young un-hairy versions of Brian Blessed and John Rhys-Davies.

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus and John Rhys-Davies as Macro

The second and more powerful surprise is how homely the Roman Imperial family seems. In the very first episode Augustus’s notoriously promiscuous daughter Julia is seen chatting and gossiping with her sister in law with the same cosy and banal familiarity with which my aunts would chat in our house. Surely nothing could go wrong in so comfortable a setting? Where was “ROME”? Worst of all it was funny. Yes, how could the ROMANS be witty in a carefree irreverent style that seemed quintessentially British.

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Augustus and Livia discussing things while strolling through a garden

Emperor Augustus strolls through his gardens with his wife discussing both his grandchildren as well as the fate of the empire like a middle aged businessman might discuss the family business.

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Caligula

Caligula is not a larger than life bloodthirsty monster but a deranged child. A teenager who delights in mad schemes, who bosses people around and is driven by his own demons.

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Three emperors, Claudius, Caligula and Tiberius

These were not larger than life characters, but normal people caught up in a high stakes game many of them would rather not be a part of. Somewhere the menace comes in. It is all the more scary because of how understated it is, how it is hidden by the everyday goings on which seem so familiar.

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