HBO’s witty historical drama is a delight to watch. Well-acted and beatifully filmed, it transports viewers to another Republic long ago, dangerously sliding towards the abyss. It is, to be sure, educational as well as entertaining. But just how real is it?
The two main characters of the show, ex-legionaries named Vorenus and Pullo, are fictional constructs. HBO’s Rome weaves their pedestrian lives cleverly into the actual historical tapestry, and usually does so believably. Every now and then, the coincidence that these two bumbling soldiers could manage to be so intertwined with historical events seems incredible. However, it’s usually done with such a wink and a nod that the viewer is willing to go along. After all, we know Caesar had thousands of legionaries. There’s no reason Vorenus and Pullo couldn’t have been two of them. Besides, watching the story unfold from their point of view is entirely refreshing.
The writers and producers of the show have worked hard to reproduce an accurate, street-level portrayal of the rustic city-state turned empire. They accurately capture Rome as the city of mud, wood and bricks rather than the city of glistening marble we would later come to know. Careful attention is paid to costuming and general atmospherics. And the casual and often ambivalent way that the Romans viewed death and sex taboos is fully on display. But in HBO’s Rome, liberties are taken, and it’s important to know what they are. One of the most obvious is the way the writers imply that the late Roman Republic had some sort of opium dependence. Libertines though they may have been, there is no strong indication of widespread drug use in the late Republic as we know it.
The episodes that took place in Egypt were especially criticized by historians for their departure from reality. HBO’s Rome made Ptolemaic Egypt seem backwards, and Persian. In reality, the city of Alexandria was far more sophistocated than Rome at the time. Moreover, Cleopatra attempted to claim Alexander the Great’s legacy as her own; she thought of herself as a Macadonian-Egyptian, not a Persian. The attempt to turn her into an Oriental Eastern Potentate was Octavian’s slander, and some say HBO’s Rome oughtn’t have gone there.
But when HBO departs from the historical record, it usually does so for good reason. They know how to spin an entertaining yarn. The unsubstantiated love affair that the show invents for Atia of the Julii and Marcus Antonius, is riveting. The way women become the back room political players is fascinating to watch. And we hardly miss important characters of the day, like Fulvia. HBO’s Rome is sleeker than history, slashing through historical footnotes with a machete to create a coherent story.
Mostly, HBO’s Rome gets it right when it comes to the big events. Pompey is defeated. Caesar is assassinated. Cassius and Brutus die at Phillipi. But the details aren’t always credible. For example, Cassius and Brutus both fell upon their swords–an honorable Roman tradition. HBO’s Rome decides upon a more dramatic exit for them, which some say worked better in the show than the historical version would have.
By and large, no one is going to get stupid watching HBO’s Rome. Even if the details aren’t perfect, the show’s realism is admirable and educational. Besides, HBO’s Rome is the best romp on the small screen to be had. So enjoy it, but take it with a grain of salt!