Re-watching Rome—the knife-edge of history

“But let us turn to the different, but equally grave, plight of the modern historian… knowing more and more about less and less, sunk without trace in an ocean of facts.”

A little while ago I made a post about appreciating the layman when it comes to history. I basically said they’re great at getting the gist of it without worrying about the finer points of academic arguments. While the quote above, from renowned historian E.H. Carr, makes a slightly different point, the essence comes through the same: we can be distracted from what the crux of history is really about. On re-watching HBO’s Rome series, it struck me how much I appreciated their take on historiography. They basically sought to recreate the feel of a time period as authentically as possible and if that meant using the facts of the past, great, if not though, they weren’t afraid to tweak things for the greater good. They got the balance pretty much perfect between realism and entertainment, and made so many great subtle points along the way. Worth unpacking more? I think so.

The first key thing I’d like to mention is how much Rome emphasises history is not inevitably set it stone. Let’s take an example from the first episode (for the record, there’ll be plenty of *spoilers* of both the show and Roman history in general, so go pick up your closest copy of Scullard if you want to learn it for yourself). So anyway, the Senate is trying to make Pompey break his friendship with Caesar and be the muscle behind outlawing him, and you know what? He says no. He says Caesar is his friend and he won’t betray him. But he does. Not because the Senate convinced him but because Caesar’s niece Atia buys a horse Pompey wanted and sends it to Caesar as a gift. That’s what turns him against his friend. Petty jealousy. Of course it’s totally made up, but the insight reflects a stark reality of humanity: we aren’t always driven by the grand trends of history which in hindsight seem so inevitable, we are, each of us, human beings capable of swimming against the tide, and we might make decisions for reasons no one will ever know. The tide only seems inevitable because we see it in hindsight, and that’s worth pondering over.

Let’s take another example with the infamous Titus Pullo. In the same vein, with the episode ironically titled, “How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic,” we see the legislation to outlaw Caesar not being thwarted because Pompey had decided to throw the book at him, and Mark Antony’s veto failed because Pompey’s mob stopped him getting to the Senate but, instead, a single no-name legionary starting a bar fight a few days earlier and his enemies spotting him in the forum with Antony. We see the tide of history being far from inevitable and not beholden to grand historical processes. We see the rise of the individual—perhaps not quite the “Great Man of history” argument but an appreciation for chaos theory and individual actions and unintended consequences.

But let’s consider dear Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus themselves for a moment. Did they exist? Yes. Caesar himself wrote about them. They weren’t good mates though or a legionary and a centurion. They were both centurions and they strove to out-do each other in acts of bravery, nearly both dying because of it. Does that matter? No. Does it matter Pullo never sired Caesarion and Vorenus was never made a senator then became a backstreet thug? No. These men became the voice of the common people in an upstairs/downstairs drama way more entertaining for its lack of commitment to the voice of the main sources of the time. Romans liked to write about what their aristocrats got up to. We don’t have a concise history of what the plebs were doing in Livy, Sallust or Tacitus, but Rome doesn’t care about that, it uses these characters, inspired from history, to give you our best glimpse into Roman life among the people. They are, if you like, the real invisible hand of history, and seeing that hand given life once more is a powerful thing indeed.

Let’s take another example of this invisible hand of the people. There’s a really powerful scene where Titus Pullo goes to kill Cicero at his villa in the country. Apart from the nonchalant attitude Pullo has, his wife and friend are having a picnic nearby, he has a great conversation with Cicero before he kills him. Basically, Cicero tells him how much Pullo will be remembered because he is the one to kill the mighty Cicero. Because of his own great importance, his murderer can’t help but live on in history. And you know what? Cicero’s killers do live on, supposedly anyway. Plutarch claims to record their names. Pity the only way for the invisible hand to get a mention by the historical record is in performing such a dastardly (great word) deed. The scene emphasises though, as much as anything else, that despite all the grand trends, and orders from on high, it’s always real people with real families who end up making it happen, and then needing to live with themselves after it.

A final example I’d like to mention is that of Servilia, Brutus’ mother. Now there’s so much you could say about her in the series, it’s worth watching almost for her alone, but I’m going to stick to discussing her death. Now in the show we have a really interesting depiction of religion. On the one hand, everyone, even nasty people like Atia, make sacrifices to the gods and seem to believe in them for the most part. But you never really see them at work, good people still die, priests get corrupted and wicked people rule. And yet, in the second season, Servilia gets so angered by the wrongs done to her family that she takes her own life outside her enemy’s house, cursing her with her dying breath. She sacrifices her life to curse someone she hates. Pretty dark stuff. And we’re meant to see that, ever since that happens, everything does go wrong for Atia and, in effect, the curse works. Add that to the subtle correlation between Atia’s bull sacrifice and Octavian’s safe journey to Caesar, despite hardship, and we see a nuanced, open-minded attitude towards religion in the ancient world. We see, despite all the grand trends and individual characters of history playing off against each other, perhaps there’s some room for another invisible hand as well, or at least the ancients seemed to think so. Interesting thought.

Anyway, I hope you can agree with me that HBO’s Rome makes a lot of good points about history. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not only one of the most entertaining pieces of historical fiction out there but the one which has the most to say about the nature of the past as well. As someone trying to write in a similar way, I’m glad such a thing took off. I think the world is ready for more than just death by a thousand facts. I think it’s ready for more nuance and more entertainment at the same time. We’ll see.

(Quote at the beginning from E. H. Carr’s book, What is History?)

2 thoughts on “Re-watching Rome—the knife-edge of history

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