The recent Netflix docudrama series Roman Empire, now in its second series reveals once again the failings of this genre. Gone are the days of the fabulous BBC docudrama Pompeii: The Last Day (2003) which illuminated its subject with heart and poignancy, fleshing out the bare bones of history.Unfortunately Roman Empire is not cut from the same cloth. When we are not being treated to some truly substandard acting and ridiculous writing, we are assaulted and insulted by the inaccurate voiceover of the narrator (Sean Bean for the first series and Steve West for the second) who makes unsubstantiated claims or outright historical fallacies. The producers of this piece of theatre (and I call it theatre because there is little historical value to be found within) care more for spectacle than historical accuracy while delivering neither.
The first series titled Reign of Blood which deals with the life and reign of the Emperor Commodus (r: 180-192). While going some way to correct a few of the historical misconceptions arising from Ridley Scott’s best picture winning film Gladiator (2000), such as the belief that Marcus Aurelius did not wish Commodus to succeed him (a common trope among works of historical fiction) or that he was slain by his former friend and general turned gladiator in a public spectacle (both of these plot points are found in Gladiator and the infinitely better Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)). It nevertheless fails to either inform or to entertain. Marcus Aurelius, possibly most famous for being a bearded philosopher emperor and the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors, is instead portrayed as a cynical soldier emperor in the style of the barracks emperors of the third century (without a beard?) caring little for the senate and solely focused on his campaigns in Germania. Whereas the historical Marcus Aurelius was a learned man and a philosopher in his own right who’s unfortunate reign saw him battling the Germanic and Pannonian tribes along the Danube frontier in present day Austria and Hungary. Commodus is suitably obnoxious and spends a great deal of his time on screen topless (not a toga to be seen anywhere in sight) or wearing a leather curiass without a tunic (chaffing anyone?). Now this is not uncommon when depicting Romans on screen, it seems that they are forever in military garb, even during a wedding as depicted in the second series, but having the Emperor of Rome dressed in a full military kit while attending the senate is not something even the hated emperors Nero or Caligula would have countenanced, let alone Marcus Aurelius. But poor costume design and casting are not Reign of Blood’s greatest failings, it is its stilted dialogue and plodding plot together with its flawed depiction of Imperial Rome that together make this such a difficult pill to swallow. The historical information provided is limited and suspect at best, despite the best intentions of the talking heads, who offer brief historical insights which are supposed to enhance the viewers knowledge of Ancient Rome. Unfortunately, these asides often interrupt what little drama is occurring on screen. All this combined makes the first series such a disappointment, but the worst is yet to come.
The second series, titled Master of Rome, which tells the story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power, is perhaps worse than its predecessor. Whereas Reign of Blood at least tries to hit the historical marks in a semblance of order, Master of Rome cares little for historical accuracy or realism. One wonders if the writers only consulted other works of historical fiction when researching it. Caesar is depicted as a humble and grizzled soldier who climbs his way to top of the Roman Republic to become what the narrator and actors call a console (sic), he is neither portrayed as being particularly politically astute nor ambitious. The consulship is depicted as being something in the vein of the American Presidency. Instead of two annually elected consuls it is a singular appointment with no apparent set term of office. Caesar is later angered when Pompey and Crassus force him out of it and prevent him having a second term of office(?). He apparently cares nothing for his governorship seeing it as exile rather than the culmination of his political rise to power. Notable players in the Late Republic such as Cicero and Cato are surprisingly absent, so too is Caesar’s legate in Gaul and later enemy Labienus. The civil war is reduced to a simple conflict between Caesar and Pompey, driven more by Pompey’s jealousy of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul than by the political conflict between the Optimates and Populares which consumed the later years of the Roman Republic. Where is Cato and his obstinacy or the charismatic Clodius and his gangs of street thugs? All could have been included for dramatic and historical effect but feel to me like a missed opportunity. The talking heads, who include historical documentary stalwarts such as Barry Strauss, Katherine Tempest, Corey Beaman and others including podcaster and author Mike Duncan, often contradict what is taking place on screen but do not provide suitable clarification in any substantial manner. Anyone familiar with the History Channel’s Barbarians Rising (2017) will immediately recognize the format. At least Roman Empire strays away from having CEO’s and American politicians weighing in as ‘experts’ on Roman history. Ultimately the Caesar and Rome depicted in Master of Rome bear little resemblance to history or even Shakespeare for that matter. This Caesar is a political simpleton, easily bidden by figures such as Crassus, Pompey, or Cleopatra, lacking either the ambition or the ingenuity of the historical figure. One feels the moralizing hand at work. Attempting to make Caesar more palatable for a modern audience and thereby stripping him of his political motivations and accomplishments. The writers even get the date of Caesar’s assassination wrong. It's the Ides of March, 44 BC or March 15 in our calendar, not the 14th as the narrator asserts. This is a small detail but one that reveals the writer’s lack of any attention to historical accuracy. If they can get this commonly known fact wrong what else have they misrepresented. A lot is the answer!
For those looking for an entertaining historical drama or an engaging documentary on the glory that was Rome you will find neither here. Instead you will find a plodding plot with stilted dialogue, poor acting and even poorer casting, coupled with an utter disregard for historical accuracy. Anachronism is rife. What little historical value provided by the talking heads is outweighed by the mountain of historical inaccuracies portrayed on screen. One expects such fallacies from a Hollywood film or television drama but when something purports to be a documentary series with historians as consultants you must hold it to a higher standard. Unfortunately that is not the case and once again proves that docudrama as a medium is horribly flawed. One would be better served by watching HBO’s Rome and following it up with PBS’s Roman Empire in the First Century or A&E’s I, Caesar. I cannot recommend this series on either an entertainment or historical level. One hopes that someday somebody will produce a historical documentary series that captivates the general audience as Netlfix’s Making of a Murderer did for the courtroom documentary. It has been too long since the glory days of PBS, A&E, and TLC documentaries on ancient Rome. We will have to wait and see. Hopefully the next series will be more engaging but I do not have much faith in that coming to pass.