30th July 2007
The second, and presumably last, series, of Rome came to its triumphant and stunning conclusion. I cannot really praise this brilliant series enough; for me it sets a benchmark for historical television series – and this is despite its lurid exploitation of sex and violence. It is interesting to examine though why this is ‘presumably the last’. The entire series has had one narrative at its centre – the rise to power of Octavius Caesar – and we finish with his triumph : in total and undisputed control of the known world at the age of 33. Now there have been countless other narratives involved, including some which are more ‘famous’ – the assassination of Julius, Anthony and Cleopatra – and some which are wholly invented – the stories of Vorenus and Pullo, the invented representatives of the Roman proletariat. But running like a golden thread has been the rise and rise of Octavius. Which is, of course, the real historical story. That is the key point; Rome is based on the central reality of the historical narrative of those years. It is fascinating that this is so often obscured in accounts of the period – I suppose Shakespeare is partly to blame, but there is also an unwillingness to look history and its brutal chronicle in the face. After all what happened next? Augustus ruled for over 40 years. The Augustan Age rolled on – Virgil, Horace and Ovid sang. Now Octavius/Augustus’s brilliance and historical importance lies on the fact that in those 40 years he founded the Roman Empire – doing so in a mazy series of manoeuvres which always disguised what he was doing. But how could you film this? Just as history begins, historical drama ends. Still we have at least been shown how he attained a position in which he could begin to practise those political, administrative etc. arts – the path of violence, ruthlessness, callousness which led him there.
Of especial emotional and moral beauty was the final shot of Attia (Octavius’s mother). Throughout the series this woman has murdered, schemed, plotted in the pursuit of power. When, finally, her son, totally estranged from her, achieves it, her reactions are a stunning mixture of joy as she surveys the cheering crowds and disillusion as she realises that everything to which her life has been geared is hollow. The series refuses to take a side here allowing the human will to power and the human realisation that there are values beyond power (well for some humans!) to conflict and collide with no resolution.