There are many reasons to admire Rome, the HBO series which concluded its first season Sunday night. Though sexually explicit and grotesquely bloody, the scripts manage seamlessly to intermingle fictional characters with grand historical figures. Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Brutus are rendered with a depth that, if not quite Shakespearian, is nevertheless miles beyond typical gladiator movies. Octavian, Pompey, Cato and even Cicero are given their moments and, though not drawn with quite the care of the first tier figures, emerge as admirably complex personae rather than cardboard cutouts.
The domestic realm, so often skimmed over in epic dramas, is here fleshed out to a remarkable degree. The female characters are long-suffering and absurdly beautiful, which is par for the course, but they have their own agendas — distinct from, and occasionally contrary to, those of their husbands and lovers. They scheme for and against one another, forging alliances of convenience and betraying them with as much gusto as their male counterparts. The catfighting is cerebral rather than physical; these are chess matches played for blood stakes, not hairpulling brawls… though Caesar’s former mistress Servilia does, at one point, lose a significant portion of her hair.
The dramatic heart of Rome, however, lies in the friendship of the two fictional male leads, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Soldiers in Caesar’s Thirteenth Legion who keep stumbling into momentous events, in the hands of lesser writers they could easily have become mere plot devices, a couple of beefcake goobers who witness history as it unfolds. Instead, they emerge as Roman Everymen. Their adventures call to mind, on occasion, Riggs and Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon movies but also, endearingly, Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple. Vorenus and Pullo are fundamentally good men, but their goodness is fluid enough for wiggle room. The tension of their narrative emerges at the moments when their moral compass threatens to go haywire, when their self-serving desires push them to the brink of outright evil. We know, before the series starts, that Brutus will at last plunge his dagger into Caesar. We don’t know whether Vorenus will allow Pullo to die in the arena.
If one scene from the first season encapsulates the series, the ghastly violence and the relentless intelligence, it comes in Episode Ten. Pullo is smitten with Eirene, a slave girl whom he rescued from death. Eirene now serves Vorenus’s wife. But Pullo secures her freedom, intending to marry her and move out of Rome to the countryside. “I love her,” he tells his old friend. “I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”
When Pullo tells Eirene he’s freed her, she’s overwhelmed. She hugs and kisses him, and at first it appears she and Pullo might be headed for that house in the country. Moments later, however, another slave from Vorenus’s household rushes up to Pullo to thank him. He is Eirene’s lover. “We had thought to take the Vorenus name as our own when we became freed men,” he joyously tells Pullo, “but Eirene says it must be under your name that she becomes my wife, so I hope you’ll agree.” Pullo flies into a rage at the news, grabs the hapless young man, and bashes his head against a tree until he’s dead.
It’s a shocking, horrific scene. We’ve come to root for Pullo, to admire his courage and loyalty, sensing as well the tenderness that lies beneath the soldierly brutality. But the moment reminds us that he’s also a creature of his time. The notion that slaves’ lives matter as much as free men and women, that slaves come equipped with their own inner monologues and emotional aspirations — these are the recognitions of our time, not Caesar’s. As if to underscore the point, when Vorenus hears the commotion in front of his house and finds Pullo sitting at the well with the young man’s blood still splashed across his face, Vorenus is furious — less because the young man is dead than because of the scandal. “You do this vileness before my children?” he berates Pullo. “You’re a damned fool! The disrespect! The stupidity! I’m a candidate for magistrate; I can’t have killings in my yard!”
The two protagonists, in other words, the two most sympathetic characters in the series, have missed the significance of a human being lying dead with his head bashed in. Not even Eirene’s wailing in the background penetrates their ethical fog. Pullo is despondent because his future with Eirene is ruined. Vorenus is irate because of the potential harm to his reputation.
The British writer Martin Amis has made the point that our multicultural impulses seem always to extend geographically but rarely temporally, that we strive to recognize the value systems of cultures separated from us by vast oceans but not by vast distances of time. This is the triumph of Rome. Along with the physical trappings of Caesar’s world, the creators and writers of the series have sought to reconstruct the cognitive framework of Roman citizens in the first century BCE. Dignity, honor and benevolence are measured on their scale, not ours. The proposition that all men are created equal is not self-evident to them, 18 centuries before the Enlightenment. How could it be?
Rome drives home the important point that even a depraved society — like ancient Rome, like the pre-Civil War South, like modern day Iran — is populated by many decent men and women who, within a tragically skewed moral universe, still seek to do the right thing.
Mark Goldblatt is the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture. (E-mail: Mgold57@aol.com.)
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