Sex and Condemnation on “Rome”

Octavia and her brother

Octavia then sets out to seduce her brother and discover the truth about Caesar’s supposed illness. During this period in history, it was not uncommon for royal siblings to marry, but incest among non-rulers was still frowned upon. Even though Octavia tells her brother that she and he are well above commoners’ distaste for incest, he tells her that there must surely be something wrong with it, given the malformed children that come of such unions.

Nevertheless, driven by her desire to gain Servilia’s approval and to get back at her mother, Atia, for murdering her husband, Octavia successfully seduces her brother. Unfortunately, he will not reveal Caesar’s mysterious affliction to her, and Octavia is overcome with remorse for her actions.

Atia soon discovers that her children have had sex together because one of the servants witnessed them doing so, and she confronts Octavia, who accuses her of murdering her husband. But Atia denies it all and tells her, “You abased yourself for a stupid lie!” Octavia then secludes herself at the Temple of Cybele (Cybele was a Greek mother goddess), ritually cutting herself and praying to be “cleansed of my weakness and filth.”

Her brother follows her there and brings her back to Rome against her will. Atia, meanwhile, has sent men to attack Servilia in the streets for revealing her part in Octavia’s husband’s death. After the attack, Servilia is shattered and shuts herself off alone in her home.

The Servilia-and-Octavia storyline is interesting for several reasons. First, their sexual relationship is depicted in a much less graphic way than the other sexual relationships on Rome. Much of their love affair involves merely looking at each other, along with a few very light kisses and touches. This is typical of the representation of lesbian sexuality on television: it shows that producers and directors, who are usually male (Rome has only one female executive producer and one female writer, and no female directors), have little knowledge of how two women engage in sex with each other.

Though we don’t need to get into the mechanical details here, it should be obvious that two women do not have sex by merely looking at each other. The lack of knowledge about lesbian sex is not unexpected, but it is disappointing in an HBO drama that explores heterosexuality with such lusty vividness.

The relationship between Servilia and Octavia is also interesting because of a lack of judgment about their relationship combined with an incest storyline resulting in immediate condemnation.

It seems clear that ancient Romans did not have many sexual hang-ups and that same-sex sexual encounters were common and even used for political gain (as when Atia encourages her son to seduce Caesar), although adults were focused on heterosexual relationships for the creation of children. Thus, Servilia and Octavia’s affair would be unlikely to arouse concern, and Atia might have even encouraged it as a way to strengthen her ties with Servilia.

However, Servilia’s direct command to Octavia to seduce her brother turns what seems to have been a loving (if sexually inaccurate) relationship into a manipulative one. The fact that Octavia goes from a same-sex relationship into an incestuous one is particularly unfortunate in our current cultural climate, in which many right-wing groups lump homosexuality with bestiality and incest as perversions that should be condemned.

Thus, the trajectory on Rome of homosexual relationship to incest to condemnation runs the risk of drawing a clear line between homosexuality and condemnation, period. It is a clear negative correlation.

In comparison, the other sexual liaisons on Rome do not take this negative spiral. Even though Atia and Cleopatra may have sex for clearly manipulative reasons, their sexuality has not yet faced such judgment. The only sexual relationship that has ended abruptly due to social judgment is the one between Octavia and Servilia, and it ended because Servilia encouraged Octavia to have sex with her brother. Let’s just say it doesn’t give lesbians a good name.

Rome has not by any means tried to be a politically correct historical drama. In fact, the series regularly shows mistreatment of women and slaves and does nothing to modernize these practices for contemporary viewers by, for example, making a slave owner express a personal distaste for slavery.

And while many viewers will likely understand that a same-sex relationship does not automatically lead to incest, it nevertheless was an unfortunate choice for the producers to make. Television is about more than just telling a good story; it is also embedded in our culture and both reflects it and has the power to shape popular beliefs. This kind of storyline simply provides fodder for those who wish to condemn lesbianism.

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