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Quo Vadis, HBO?

Is this the real Cleopatra?

For the most part, HBO’s ROME series has hewn admirably close to history — it’s been so well-researched and cleverly constructed that I’ve simply had nothing to say, except, “Pass the popcorn and show me the next one!” But everything came undone with episode #8, “Caesarion,” which introduced Cleopatra. Travesty is too kind a word for this wretched misfire.

A cut above...

First, a few words of praise. Especially in comparison to ABC’s EMPIRE mini-series, which drew on the same subject matter but was blissfully unconcerned with historical accuracy, ROME has been a cut above in every respect. The colorful vibrancy of the city, with its combination of splendor and squalor, is a visual delight, as are the interiors of the houses, both grand and humble. Even a number of tiny details are so right that even the most demanding Classicist must be impressed.

For example, the Romans actually did use the Latin word for honey, mel, as a term of endearment, so we have Atia calling her daughter, “my honey.” Also, the upper class use of oil lamps, contrasted to the lower class reliance on cheap candles, strikes a telling note.

As for the characterizations of Caesar and Pompey and their motivations for the Civil War, one may argue endlessly about the writers’ choices, but those choices clearly have been inspired by the authentic sources. ROME’s version of events has a place in the dialogue about Caesar that has been going on between historians for centuries. The writers clearly grasp the material, and have made their own legitimate use of it.

For example, Caesar was indeed famous for his clemency; in ROME, when he enthusiastically pardons Cicero and Brutus after the battle of Pharsalus, the exact details may be invented, but the tone is right. Marc Antony was known for his petty, vindictive nature; it may be anachronistic for him to threaten to cut off Cicero’s hand so early in the series, but this bit of dramatic license casts a powerful foreshadowing.

Some of the writer’s choices do baffle me. Why play up the obscure character of Atia, and leave out completely Marc Antony’s future wife Fulvia, one of history’s most extraordinary femme fatales? Why fail to mention that Servilia is Cato’s half-sister? But, all storytellers have to make their own choices and find their own way through this maze of dramatic material.

A few errors & anachronisms...

Oh, I’ve had a few quibbles. Perhaps the most glaring error/anachronism took place in the first episode, when Atia took a shower in bull’s blood. This ritual was called the taurobolium; it was practiced by the eunuch priests of Cybele and also by the male adherents of the cult of Mithras, which became a major rival to Christianity...but the earliest known performance of the taurobolium in Rome was about a century after ROME takes place. A hundred-year anachronism may not seem a big deal, but imagine watching a drama about the American Civil War...and seeing Hare Krishnas chanting in railway stations! It’s obvious that the bull’s blood was simply a gratuitous shock effect the creators of ROME couldn’t resist throwing into the mix.

Some minor omissions and misrepresentations may simply be due to budget limitations. For example, Pompey arrived on the coast of Egypt with a small fleet of ships, not in a single rowboat, as suggested in the series. Nevertheless, even within these limited means, ROME managed to highlight the wrenching drama and pathos of his demise.

Good history makes good drama. Like millions of others, I’ve eagerly looked forward to watching ROME, enjoying each new episode more than the last.

Until the debacle of Cleopatra.

Junkie, whore, victim?

In the episode titled “Caesarion,” Caesar arrives in Alexandria, and ROME delivers the single worst presentation of Cleopatra (and of Ptolemaic Egypt) that I’ve ever seen.

Once again, budgetary limitations may have prevented the producers from giving us a convincing portrait of the city of Alexandria, at this time the most opulent, cosmopolitan metropolis in the world, famous for its library, its scientific learning, and the splendor of its royal complex. Instead, ROME showed us an assortment of weirdos who looked like something out of an Oliphant cartoon, and the shabbiest royal palace this side of an old bargain-basement Roger Corman movie.

ROME also perverted the details of Caesar’s diplomatic and military activities in Alexandria beyond recognition, and for no good reason; the fascinating true story is there for the telling, clearly recounted by Caesar himself in his memoirs of the Civil War. Generations of novelists, playwrights, musicians, and moviemakers, from H. Rider Haggard to George Bernard Shaw, from DeMille to Mankiewicz, from Handel to Samuel Barber, have recounted this story, striving to do it justice. The writer for ROME had no excuse for screwing it up so badly.

As for Cleopatra, I’ll point out only the two most ruinous errors in her presentation.

First of all, ROME has it that she was being held captive by her brother and rival for the throne, young Ptolemy. Nowhere does such a notion appear in the sources; in fact, Cleopatra had been driven out of Alexandria, and was heading her own military forces in the field. ROME makes her a captive for one reason, and one reason only: so that the soldiers Vorenus and Pullo can rescue her. History is deliberately falsified for the sole purpose of advancing the writer’s own dubious subplot.

Not only is ROME’s Cleopatra a captive in need of Roman rescue, she’s a junkie to boot; we see her sucking on what appears to be an opium pipe. This, too, is purely the writer’s invention. Is this about the real Cleopatra, or a parody of some Hollywood scriptwriter’s druggie ex-girlfriend?

In actuality, how did Cleopatra meet Caesar? The sources all agree: Cleopatra, with the assistance of a loyal servant named Apollodorus, managed to smuggle herself into the royal palace. She did this at the risk of her life, in order to meet, charm, win over, and probably seduce Caesar, whose assistance she needed in order to assert her claim on the throne. The true tale gives us essential insight into her character: a self-assured, clever, resourceful, clear-headed, undaunted, masterful player of the game of statecraft. Not, as ROME would have it, a helpless junkie nymphomaniac.

Why resort to trashing Cleopatra, when the true story provides such a treasure trove?

Quo vadis, ROME?

If “Caesarion” is an indication of ROME’s direction, the series is headed precariously downhill. Hopefully, this shoddy episode was an anomaly in what has otherwise been a superb season.

copyright © 2005 Steven Saylor