History that hurts

Fueled by obscenity, HBO's series "Rome" shocks us back 2,000 years -- and reflects the horror show in Iraq today.

Published February 13, 2007 12:55PM (EST)

In his book "Mythologies," the French theorist Roland Barthes turned his jaundiced gaze on, among other things, bad movie haircuts. In a chapter titled "The Romans in Films," Barthes mocked the dos in Joseph Mankiewicz's 1953 film "Julius Caesar." "[A]ll the characters are wearing fringes. Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed," Barthes wrote. "What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness ... The frontal lock overwhelms us with evidence, no one can doubt that he is in Ancient Rome." For Barthes, these "Roman" haircuts, along with the constant "passionate" sweat that pours from everyone, are a "degraded spectacle, which is equally afraid of simple reality and of total artifice." By pompously pretending to be "natural," the Roman haircut is a sign of artistic bad faith.

Barthes' essay helped me understand why I'm addicted to HBO's series "Rome." It is part of a new breed of dramas -- "Deadwood" is another one -- that have found an infinitely more potent way of hurling us into the outer space of history than archaic hairstyles. Combining the savage realism that is now acceptable on the tube with meticulous research, they use the most visceral means, including strange sex and extreme violence, to shock us out of our contemporary cocoons and summon up a time when human beings were profoundly different from human beings today. By refusing moral judgment, they allow the pastness of the past to come to shocking life. They are time machines fueled by obscenity.

"Rome" is based on solid historical research. But what makes it draw imaginative blood is the fact that it's uncensored scholarship, audacious history. "Rome" is incredibly entertaining, while also being incredibly shocking. It's history porn. It dares to depict an alien worldview, one untouched by Christianity and the moral ethos introduced by that strange little sect. Perhaps those Catholic watchdog groups should stop worrying about heretical fluff like "The Da Vinci Code" and pay more attention to "Rome."

More to the point, maybe the geniuses who brought us the war in Iraq should have watched it before they decided to slap around an ancient religiously based culture they knew nothing about. They thought they would be getting "The Ten Commandments" -- instead they got "Rome." Or "Caligula."

There is no reason to believe that "Rome's" creators were thinking about contemporary affairs when making the series. Nonetheless, it's hard not to think of the nihilistic horror show in Iraq when watching "Rome." Brutal civil wars, shifting alliances, the machinations of the powerful -- it's all happening again. Some historians have made an explicit comparison between America at the start of the third millennium and Rome at the start of the first. The distinguished Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld called Iraq "the most foolish war since Emperor Augustus in 9 B.C sent his legions into Germany and lost them." The uncomfortable truth is that genuine history, as opposed to the kitschy, sentimental version that American politicians and moviemakers alike cling to, does not necessarily reward the good. Indeed, it calls into question what "the good" is. Our leaders proclaim that America is a force for historical good, and our commercial storytellers sing us to sleep with happy fairy tales. But historians take a much colder view.

Invading Iraq, as I argued before the war started, was such an enormous and unpredictable act that it plunged America out of the explicable realm of politics and into the great abyss of history. "It cannot be explained or defined. When it comes, it will simply exist, with the opacity of history. Its outcome is not foreseeable ... To exist in history is to have passed beyond the pieties and slogans of the political. History is tragic: politics is not. History is glorious. It is also fatal."

It is not surprising that historians and scholars who actually knew something about the Middle East were overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq war. Nor is it surprising that neither our political leaders nor our media listened to them. History hurts. And watching "Rome" is a sharp and salutary reminder of this.

"Rome" covers one of the most turbulent periods in Rome's history -- the civil war, the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the final end of the Republic marked by the reign of Octavian, who became the first emperor. The Senate, that ancient bastion of aristocratic resistance to autocracy, is weakened and no longer able to stand against powerful military leaders like Caesar and his great rival, Pompey. With epic sweep, the show shows us the desperate deliberations of senators, for whom betting on the right horse was a matter of life and death. It takes us into the tents of the generals, and the opulent houses of two Roman matrons plotting each other's destruction. And, above all, it focuses on the lives of two plebeians, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, whose friendship, enduring against all odds, is the emotional heart of the story. As the second season nears its midpoint, Julius Caesar has been killed, and a showdown looms between the army led by the two leading conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, and the forces of Mark Anthony and the young Octavian.

"Rome," which cost $100 million to make, is justly celebrated for its extraordinary attention to historically accurate detail, from the "bullas" (amulets) young Romans wore around their necks to the look and feel of the teeming streets of the ancient city. As with "The Lord of the Rings," high production values play a big part in creating a convincing alternate reality. Any tiny detail in the show is certain to be based on historical research. In a recent episode, for example, Servilia, Brutus' mother and Julius Caesar's former lover, prayed to the ancient ur-female deity Isis. I Googled some of the phrases from her incantation and found they came from Apuleius' 2nd-century A.D. proto-novel "The Golden Ass," a significant historic source. The writers took artistic liberties -- the passage they pulled is not a prayer but a description -- but the point is that they didn't just make up some archaic gobbledygook. The academic message boards about the show are mostly laudatory, with only a few complaints concerning minor inaccuracies such as Servilia's anachronistic ox-blood ritual and the fact that Cleopatra was not in Ptolemy's custody or rescued by Caesar's men. It's obvious, watching this show, that smart historians and researchers who know a lot about ancient Rome were consulting with equally smart screenwriters who weren't going to go "Gladiator" on us.

The biggest difference between "Rome" and "Gladiator," or "Ben-Hur," or the vast run of Hollywood costume dramas, is that it resists making its characters familiar. This is a bigger achievement than it might appear. A work of art set in the distant past must walk a tricky line between portraying its characters as essentially the same as us or as utterly alien. Most history-themed films and TV shows have always fallen decidedly on the "human beings are always the same" end of the spectrum. There are many reasons for this. It requires both historical scholarship and a certain imaginative audacity to create characters who don't share some of our most basic assumptions and beliefs. It's also a lot easier to hook viewers with characters whose emotions and beliefs they share. Moreover, there's a self-contradiction at the heart of the enterprise: to create a three-dimensional character, one must fully enter into his or her mind -- not easy to do if that mind is radically different.

Small wonder that typical Hollywood historical schlock -- which does not include "Julius Caesar" -- presents the past as being just like now, only with bangs. The past is manifested only by "Roman" locks, or "Roman" sweating, or "brazen" trumpet motifs that all seem to come from the same Olde Times Sound Effects Shoppe. These feeble signifiers are the only things that tell us we're in 50 B.C.; the characters themselves are simply yokels from a 1963 street in the Bronx wearing sheets. Tony Curtis' deathless line, "Yonda lies da castle of my fadda," is the kitschy banner that waves over the whole enterprise.

It's true that Hollywood costume dramas also try to make their characters fascinatingly alien. But their efforts are so cartoonish that they fail. Films like "The Ten Commandments" -- an admittedly extreme example -- are filled with larger-than-life characters whose mighty, archaic passions and grand, wooden gestures are intended to mark them as Not of Our Time. Barthes appears to have been mercifully unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Charlton Heston. Had he watched any of his biblical epics, he could have filled up an entire second volume of "Mythologies." (Der Charlton's gritted teeth would have merited a chapter by themselves.) But these attempts to hurl us back into a bygone age are ludicrously unconvincing, the psychological equivalent of "Roman" haircuts.

By contrast, "Rome" is admirably cold. Indeed, it verges on nihilism. It refuses to sentimentalize or bowdlerize its two main protagonists, Vorenus and Pullo. They are good men -- loyal, courageous, devoted to their families, their comrades, their units, their leaders and Rome. But they are also murderers who kill again and again, in both cold and hot blood. They obey a moral code that might as well be from Mars (and, in fact, is). Enraged by his wife Niobe's infidelity, Vorenus is about to stab her to death when she commits suicide, and has to be convinced by Pullo not to butcher the little boy who was the product of Niobe's affair. For his part, Pullo, who plays Sancho Panza to Vorenus' Don Quixote in one of the more memorable buddy pairings in television history, abducts, tortures and stabs to death Niobe's unfortunate lover Evander. (The fact that Pullo is accompanied by the young Octavian, destined to become the Emperor Augustus, does not make this coldblooded killing less disturbing.) He also batters out the brains of a young slave who was planning to marry Eirene, the slave girl Pullo is in love with. Later, in a scene at once hilarious, disturbing and historically convincing, he proposes to Eirene, saying, "I know I didn't get us started off on the right foot, killing your man and all, and I'm sorry for that."

In "Rome" brutal, graphic violence, not controlled by any law or familiar moral code, is joined by lots of equally untrammeled fucking. I use the word "fucking" advisedly because that's what the Romans did. They didn't have sex, they fucked. Fucking was not attended by shame or guilt (except in cases of adultery or incest). This is why "Rome" can graphically depict characters fucking in front of slaves and servants, utterly unconcerned, or have Mark Anthony's aristocratic lover Atia telling him to blow off some libidinal steam by fucking "that German slut," one of her slaves.

The key here is "graphic." This is where "Rome" separates itself from such earlier efforts as the superb BBC series "I, Claudius." A highly intelligent work, "I, Claudius" might in certain ways be superior to "Rome" -- its intrigues are more exquisitely intricate, and it avoids certain melodramatic narrative clichés. But it cannot match the way the new series violently immerses the viewer in history. Based on Robert Graves' novels, "I, Claudius" is essentially a work of theater, not film; it uses language, not action or setting, to pull in the viewer. It is a subtler approach to history, brilliant in its own way, but it does not succeed like "Rome" in truly evoking the past in all its radical and banal otherness.

"I, Claudius" acknowledges the disturbing differences between Roman life and our own, but it merely presents those differences -- it doesn't use the full power of cinematography to overpower us. Its world is just as amoral and strange as "Rome's," but it's far more stilted and artificial. "I, Claudius" features some discreet nudity and a tad of kinky sex, and quite a bit of violence. But the sex and violence are mostly too tasteful and restrained to be really disturbing. (The most hideous scene in "I, Claudius" is the one in which Caligula disembowels his sister and eats her unborn child. But Caligula, a psychotic monster who once supposedly said that he wished the whole world had one neck so he could cut it off with a single blow, is pretty much a guaranteed freakout.) "Rome," by contrast, shoots hot-blooded fucking and gruesome death into your veins with a big syringe. It's electroshock historicism. And it's a big part of the reason why "Rome" is so powerful.

Obscenity, using that word in its broadest sense as meaning "offensive to accepted standards of decency or modesty," is an underrated aesthetic device, particularly in dealing with historical eras that are themselves offensive to our accepted standards. It cuts through your defenses, forces you to look at things from unfamiliar and uncomfortable perspectives. It has its limitations: carried too far, it can become monstrous and excessive. But it is an unrivaled way of bringing the past to life. The scene in which Pullo cuts off Evander's thumbs to make him talk, and rejects his desperate pleas for life by spitting out, "Can't you die with a little dignity?" brings us into the strange heart of a culture obsessed with revenge, honor and dying well.

"Rome" plunges us into an amoral, anarchic, conservative, lustful, deeply religious age. It throws history in our face, makes it impossible for us to escape it. We walk across Rome's streets, squat in its latrines, enter its brothels -- and are forced to contend with its profound otherness.

"Rome" uses more than shock to pull us into its alien and familiar world. It is beautifully cast and its actors maintain a delicate balance between portraying their characters as recognizable and portraying them as deeply strange. They act in a slightly stylized manner, but never in the overblown, Charlton Heston way. They come across as opaque and human at once. Ciaran Hinds' Julius Caesar, in particular, strikes a perfect note of enigmatic power. It is hard to say exactly who this man is, but that is hardly strange -- Caesar's own contemporaries could not make up their mind about him, nor have subsequent historians. He is one of the most cryptic characters in world history. Kevin McKidd, superb as the centurion Vorenus, captures not just the most appealing parts of his character's Roman virtue but the most unappealing. Vorenus' dark night of the soul, when he repeatedly rejects his best friend Pullo after losing his wife and family, is endless and ugly but convincing. This makes Vorenus' simple humanity, which conflicts with his Roman ethics, all the more touching. The scene when he confronts Niobe's child in the slave camp, and is forced to decide on the spot whether to kill him, the path of Roman honor, or save his life, is a breathtaking piece of acting, but it is more than that. Like the famous scene when Huck Finn says, "All right, I'll go to hell," and decides not to turn in Jim, it illuminates something enduring about the human spirit -- something unchanged through two millennia.

And, of course, "Rome" is irresistible because of its over-the-top, picaresque plot, which finds its two heroes miraculously turning up at virtually every significant event in the history of the late republic. Of course it's absurd but it's the kind of absurdity that doesn't matter. And Vorenus and Pullo's rollicking and tragic story is so compelling that it sweeps all before it.

"Rome" isn't perfect. Its very strengths -- potent characters, dramatic confrontations, cliffhanger plot twists -- can make it feel artificially overheated, even melodramatic, at times. I agree with Salon's TV critic, Heather Havrilesky, that the series fails to sufficiently explore crucial questions concerning Julius Caesar's reign, his intentions and his murder. Was he a tyrant or a well-meaning ruler? Were Brutus and his collaborators right to kill him? It's a huge question that Shakespeare put in play and that historians have never been able to resolve, and no one expects a television series to solve it. Moreover, it's an extremely difficult issue to embody dramatically. The conspirators acted out of principle: the desire to restore the republic and the fear, which is the central motif in Roman history, that too much power was held by one man. This is a highly abstract thing to depict. But "Rome's" writers could have raised these questions more pointedly. We are left with the impression that they are agnostic, that if they don't side with Caesar, they are at least somewhat skeptical of the lofty claims of Brutus and the republicans. This is an eminently defensible position, but it's hard to be sure what they think.

There is a method in this reticence. Confronted with such historical controversies, "Rome" tends to simply hint at them, leaving them as unresolved dramatically as they are historically. The writers leave the audience to come to its own conclusions. But this at times assumes too much; the show may be too sophisticated for its own good.

But those caveats are minor. "Rome" is a rarity, a great yarn that also makes you think. And with America's legions bogged down in a distant land, its senators bickering, and its people realizing that their leaders are incompetent and power-mad, it gives you a lot to think about. "Rome" is a free ticket to the past. You hit the whorehouses with Octavian, walk the Aventine with Vorenus and Pullo, stand with Brutus as he grapples with his fateful decision. And you wonder how a brutal, noble, long-vanished civilization still has so much to teach us about power, and corruption, and how to die.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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