Posted by: Sarah | November 7, 2005

Rome: The Soap Opera

Rome, the drama series set during the fall of the Roman Republic, has finally reached the United Kingdom (which seems to have provided all of the actors), via the BBC (which provided a small part of the funding, the American HBO supplying the rest).

On the soap opera level I enjoyed episode 1, what with all the bawdiness, violence and those cheeky animated graffiti. It was clever and entertaining to bring in the second storyline with the two pleb soldiers to show us how the other half lived. But it left me thinking, “Is this all there is?” It seemed like a wasted opportunity, skewed more toward trivia than substance.

The production looks exhilaratingly authentic, right down to the small details (even if it isn’t invariably so). Obviously no expense has been spared on sets, props and costumes. So it was a shame that all that cash and care served an incoherent storyline and banal script. A A Gill in yesterday’s Sunday Times described Rome as “Gibbon written by gibbons”, which is about as apt as it’s amusing, except for the period of course.

Another piece in The Sunday Times goes some way toward explaining the incoherence. How dare the BBC condense 3 episodes into 2 without the director’s knowledge, even if it was contractually allowed to? And who does it think it’s kidding to say that British viewers don’t need the detail because they already know the background? They might have done a couple of generations ago, but not now. (For a racy and accurate account, I’d recommend Tom Holland’s Rubicon.) The result was not only confusion for the viewer, but the loss of many chances for upping the ante on satisfying tension and conflict.

These were exciting, important times, in terms of the politics and the players — an old order crumbling and a new one yet to emerge — involving vicious personal enmities and rivalries between strong, colourful characters, who all seem dismayingly cartoonish and one-dimensional in this production.

Various historical novelists have popped up to give us their views on the accuracy. Read Steven Saylor (whose Roma sub Rosa series is set in these times) here and Robert Harris (Pompeii) here.

The arguments will no doubt continue to rage, and while they do people will be learning something about Roman civilization. Hurrah!

And I haven’t even mentioned the sex…



  1. That looks like another series I’m going to watch with the sound off and a good book besides to turn to during the sex scenes. 🙂

    I’m not a prude; as a writer, I don’t close the door if I deem the sex necessary for character development or the plot, but it seems that series has a lot of gratuitous sex, and that dislike.

    The reason I’m going to peek into it at all once the series makes it to Germany: the correct details in the visual presentation. I have scenes taking place in Rome 408 AD (maybe also in the other NiP about the building of the Hadrian’s Wall) and despite the changes since 52 BC, there should be some aspects to help me visualise the place.

  2. I just read your old posts and discovered you participated in an excavation in Vindolanda. That’s so cool – Vindolanda is one of the settings of my NiP “Storm over Hadrian’s Wall”.

    So I know whom to pester if I have any questions. *grin*

  3. Hello Gabriele

    The visual detail in the “Rome” drama serial is stunningly good, in my opinion. It’s worth watching just for that, especially if you’re writing in the Roman era.

    I just visited your blog and read the extracts from “Storm over Hadrian’s Wall”, which I assume is the one that has Vindolanda as one of the settings.
    I hope you’ll get it published — there aren’t nearly enough good new Roman novels to read these days.

    You probably know this already, but “Band of Brothers: Garrison Life at Vindolanda” by Anthony Birley is a great source. The author is a retired prof. of ancient history and brother of Robin Birley who found the first Vindolanda writing tablets in the 1970s. It’s been great fun digging there for a couple of weeks each summer for the last 5 years! If I can be of any help, do let me know, although I’m only an amateur.

  4. Hi Sarah,

    thank you for your kind words about my novel-in-progress. It’s nice to know there is a readership for novels about the Romans.

    In a way, it’s Rosemary Sutcliff’s fault that I work on Storm over Hadrian’s Wall and another Roman Britain project, The Charioteer. Then there’s the first book I wrote, in dire need of revision, a Mediaeval saga (part of it takes place in Scotland) – I think I can thank Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, and the Icelandic Sagas for that one. Books I love since childhood. *grin*

    I have a Band of Brothers. Got it from the library first (Göttingen University has an excellent one) and then decided to buy it. I wish I had the money to travel to Vindolanda and the Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve been to the wall, but not around Vindolanda – I had no idea I’d need the info back then.

    Thank you for your offer of help – I’ll get back to it if I can’t find something I need to know in the books. Right now I’m researching medical care / lazaretts and such.

    And there’s always the tribes on the other side of the wall, about whom we know very little. Fun. 😉

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