I admit I am a bit of a sword-and-sandal junkie. I was mesmerized by Gladiator, giggled through Troy, and even sat through Angelina Jolie’s bizarre turn as the wicked mother in Alexander. It’s not surprising, then, that I would be eager to take a look at HBO’s new epic series Rome, which has famously been six years in the making at a budget of $100 million.
Besides, everyone from GLAAD to HBO has been touting the fact that in Rome, sexuality isn’t limited to the hetero—men slept with men and women slept with women, though they may not have identified as “gay."
So I tuned into the program with interest: What would Rome have to say about the lives of women? The answer, though disappointing, wasn’t necessarily surprising. The lives of women, it seems, revolve around men.
The 12-episode series, which was filmed on five acres of backlots at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios (reportedly the largest standing set in the world), is about “Rome from the street level,” according to executive producer Bruno Heller. That means a good deal of the series is supposed to be told from the point of view of two soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson).
But the majority of the first episode focuses on the political and military machinations behind the two rulers of Rome in 52 B.C.: Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) and Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds).
There are some women, of course. There’s Atia, Caesar’s niece, played by the scene-stealing Polly Walker (Patriot Games, Control), who doesn’t hesitate to pimp out her daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon, Angela’s Ashes) to the much-older Pompey after his wife dies in childbirth. Atia’s disregard for her daughter’s reluctance to bed Pompey is disturbing, but Atia is such a character that it’s hard to hate her.
Atia’s main rival for behind-the-scenes power is Servilia (Lindsay Duncan, Under the Tuscan Sun), who happens to be Caesar’s favorite lover. Servilia appears on the surface to be a calm and quiet woman, but it seems that she may have more steel in her than is immediately apparent in the first episode. Finally, Indira Varma (Bride & Prejudice, Kama Sutra) plays Niobe, the wife of soldier Lucius Vorenus.
The series’ producers have gone out of their way to insist that women were the “shadow rulers” of Rome, going so far as to produce a special 15-minute documentary about the “Women of Rome” (airing on HBO On Demand). In the short film, even the actresses chime in to insist that though their characters are wives, sisters, and mothers, they exercise great power “at the end of the day.”
But this argument is merely another adaptation of the old saying “behind every great man is a better woman,” which was, frankly, a spoonful of sugar to sweeten the bitter taste of sexism.
But Rome isn’t simply a tale set during an undoubtedly sexist period of history. By publicly situating these women as “shadow rulers,” Rome’s creators are also inviting us to read a particular allegory within this series. The official website for the series declares: “The Republic was founded on principles of shared power and fierce personal competition, never allowing one man to seize absolute control. But now, those foundations are crumbling, eaten away by corruption and excess.”
The political allegory in this statement is easy enough to read; if you’re stumped, substitute “U.S.” for “Republic” and “W.” for “one man.” But considering the issue of women as “shadow rulers” is much more interesting.
HBO’s Rome: It’s No Lesbos