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One thing which interests me about Rome (apart from the question of why everything in the titles is animated but not the penis) is how its focus dovetails with trends in scholarship on ancient Rome. I think it intrigues me that it is such a melange of both older and highly conservative takes on the fall of the Republic and more modern ones.



1. What is very modern is, I think, the understanding of the mob and the power of the crowd in Rome. We've had it before but no one has ever bother to try and figure (or represent) how the influence of the mob permeated everything in Roman politics (well, maybe Gladiator is the exception to this, so perhaps this is why Rome leads this way). The Aventine *is* important and its violence profoundly unsettling to a Roman consul - who cannot solve it by sending in a (non-existent) police force. (Anyone interested in this topic should probably read Miller's 'The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic.' It's not the most scintillating read, but it really is interesting.)

2. Religion. I think that the current take is that religion was much more important to Romans - of all levels of society - when in the past everyone was 'oh, the plebs were all religious but the rich were basically atheists.' The show has a little of that (the manipulation of augury) but it still put religion in a central place in Roman life and people are really disturbed when it is publicly flouted.

3. What is very old fashioned is the portrayal of women. Really, it's right out of I, Claudius and histories of the 1950s. Ambitious women are ruled by their physical desires and creatures of excess and lust - and not terribly politically asute when politics clashes with their sex-drive. Atia was smart and canny, but her first political mistake - siding with Antony over Octavian - comes because she is worried about losing her man to Cleopatra. In Rome, ambitious women are not ambitious because they want to be politics or have power but because they have been unlucky in love. I love Atia and Servilia and the actresses are wonderful, but they really are a throwback in how they are written and I think it's the weak link of the show, but a weak link which is disguised by the acting.

4. Slavery. Ah, all those dedicated slaves of Livy and Valerius Maximus. Right. The interesting thing is that the show doesn't disguise the violence of slavery and cruelty of Roman masters and mistresses, but it more or less has slaves as completely passive or dedicated to their master. And it has no interest in how they act when they're not in their owners' presence. In fact, slaves are shown as the Romans would have wanted: extensions of their masters with no desires of their own and no interest in even passive resistance. Keith Bradley would probably roll his eyes.

Date: 2007-01-23 05:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] queenofthorns.livejournal.com
It's not boring at all - I love reading these little insights that you provide!

Maybe if they'd had more time, they could have gotten into the slaves' stories a little more? (I think the problem with Eirene is that Chiara Mastalli didn't speak very much English, so they basically had to make her mute for most of the first season. And I wish we'd seen a little more of Posca - or Atia's slave who seems kind of, well, less excited about his mistress!)

Date: 2007-01-23 08:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lesbiassparrow.livejournal.com
I didn't know about the English barrier thing with Eirene. I guess that there isn't time to do everything, and who knows where they will end up with some of the stories. I am not necessarily looking for a huge plot-line but given the percentage of the Roman population which were slaves it seems a little odd to just make them wallpaper.

Date: 2007-01-23 06:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] raincitygirl.livejournal.com
I had a longer reply,b ut LJ ate it. As regards the slaves, I imagine some would take the total passivity route, either as a survival tactic or because they're relatively privileged and know it, but it's awfully convenient for the writers that the only slaves who have any part at all to play in the narrative are those who efface their own personalities. Particularly since history suggests that slave uprisings occurred pretty regularly.

When I say privileged, I think we're mostly seeing a specific type of slave: the personal servants of the very wealthy. Not to go all Gosford Park, but they're valets and lady's maid types, not scullery maids. In comparison with the average slave working as an agricultural labouror, they're doing well. For one thing, they'd be expensive to replace because they have skills, whereas the slaves who are just being used as brute labour or prostitution can be worked to death without anybody caring much. I mean, if you've got a steady stream of newly enslaved people from the borders being imported, there's very little incentive to take a longterm view.

I wish they'd given Eirene an actual personality. Yeah, she's at the very opposite end of the spectrum from privileged slaves like Posca, and numbness and passivity are certainly plausible survival strategies. But again, it seems convenient for the writers that she's just a beautiful blank canvas. They can fetishise her suffering without having to actually care about it. I mean, she very briefly seemed to develop an actual personality and some agency, when she was angry with Pullo for murdering her boyfriend, but then she went back into victim mode. Which, yeah, if all your past experiences have taught you that fighting back and trying to have any control over your life at all just make everything worse, and you don't want to commit suicide, then maybe you'll just do what you're told. But not every person in that situation would react as Eirene did.

I love Polly Walker's Atia, with her combination of dippy socialite and ambitious opportunist, but you're right, she's a stereotype. At least her ambition seems to have some external logic to it, though. I mean, okay, she has poor impulse control and gets way too distracted by the penis of the moment, but she has goals. She wants power, success, wealth, fabulous (if dangerous) opportunities for her kids. She has a really strange idea of what will make her kids happy, but at least she has logical reasons for her actions. She just needs Ritalin so she can concentrate for more than five minutes at a time.

Servilia is just as stereotypical, but with less excuse. She's intelligent and conniving. Surely she could be ambitious for herself, as opposed to just wanting to wreak revenge on old boyfriends. With a malleable son like Brutus, it'd be plausible for her to seek his advancement because she'd be the power behind the throne.

Date: 2007-01-23 08:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lesbiassparrow.livejournal.com
It's interesting that while slave rebellions do start with rural slaves (less control, more chance to organize, little hope of freedom) there's arguments that household slaves are more open to some of the more casual forms of personal abuse (rape, whippings, assualt, murder) which makes it a horrible position also. But you're making a good point that a slave like Posca probably knows he will be freed and is probably too expensive to be casually abused in any way that will damage him severely.

I didn't know about the actress' who plays Eirene issues with English - I guess that makes more sense now.

I don't demand you have mad slave uprising in the streets of Rome, just someone spitting in the food once in a while or stealing something would make more sense than this gung-ho 'I love my master' attitude that they all seem to have.

I think what makes Atia work is Polly Walker; she convinces you that this is a clever and ambitious woman even as the script has her doing very stupid and lust addled things. And given that she and Antony aren't even married and even if they were that he could divorce her if she became inconvient it seems awfully stupid of her to toss her lot in with him.

It would be nice to see a woman want power because she thinks she can do a better job than the men who have run Rome into the ground rather than because she is in love/spurned/anxious about losing her lover. I am hoping that the new, improved Cleopatra means that the show might have her be a politician above all else.

Date: 2007-01-23 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] queenofthorns.livejournal.com
someone spitting in the food once in a while

Heh! Well, Eirene certainly did THAT (although she wasn't a slave any more at that point.) Plus, the whole thing where she wanted to cut Pullo's throat.

So I disagree that she was depicted as entirely passive (and I liked in the latest episode that she actually sounded pretty wifely with Pullo :P)

(This is all, of course, a digression from your point. I'd like to see Castor spitting in Atia's food sometime after he got whipped :P)

Date: 2007-01-23 08:53 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Well, Eirene certainly did THAT (although she wasn't a slave any more at that point.) Plus, the whole thing where she wanted to cut Pullo's throat.

I know - she had some resentment at some point...but then seems to have magically lost it. Or realised what would happen to her if she killed her former master or that she was stuck with Pullo much in the manner of a large, wet dog that you cannot shake off!

I can't remember (and am too lazy to check) when the legislation got brought in that if you were freed by your master for the purposes of him marrying you, you had to marry him or were re-enslaved. I bet it's Augustan, though.

Date: 2007-01-23 09:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] queenofthorns.livejournal.com
Hee! I figured (or else some extremely well-educated anonymous person :P)

I think Eirene is a survivor first and foremost, and Niobe basically told her "grisly death awaits you if you actually kill Pullo in revenge."

I feel like resentment and revenge are probably luxuries Eirene may not feel she can still afford. (Whereas she can nag him to death and he apparently still feels so guilty and is so besotted that he'll deal with it. Heh!)

Date: 2007-01-23 11:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexandral.livejournal.com
In fact, slaves are shown as the Romans would have wanted: extensions of their masters with no desires of their own and no interest in even passive resistance. Keith Bradley would probably roll his eyes.

I am very interested to know how it was in reality. This is the way we were taught on the history lessons, that a large percentage of Roman slaves were pretty much settled into their position and that their desires often were to serve their masters. In a similar way to Russian slavery, when many servants stayed with their masters after slavery was abolished. I remember it used to bother me very much at that time that a large percentage of people would not want their own life (and that was 18th century already)

Date: 2007-01-23 06:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lesbiassparrow.livejournal.com
Reading Keith Bradley's books on slavery (all of which are worth reading if you're interested in the subject) is fascinating. Most slaves did not do anything actively because the consequences were too severe - when they rebel or kill their master something quite horrible has to have happened that pushes them right over the edge. There's a letter of Pliny the Younger's about a household that kills their master and given the injuries they inflicted it seems clear that the abuse was sexual in that house. And there are large numbers of advertisements for runaway slaves in Egypt (where such things survive) which suggests that individuals did run at times - there's a really funny law case where it's clear the guy's wife ran off with everything that wasn't nailed down and a male slave with whom she was having an affair. And another great letter of Pliny's where it seems like a senator and his son were either killed or sold into slavery by their own slaves who were accompanying them on a trip in the North of Italy. So some people got away...

There were other ways in which slaves could do things - most of which were passive: spoiling resources, not working as hard as they were supposed to, dancing on the edge of insubordination without giving their owners anything clear to complain about.

I think most household slaves were a bit stuck and held in check by the promimse of freedom, which you could hope for if you were closely connected to your master or mistress (it seems to have been standard to free your nurse, for example). And urban slaves of big households would have been well fed on the whole, so they might be scared of the great unknown (and besides where would you run to given the reach of the empire?). But there's a real reason the Romans like homebred slaves and that's got to be because they were easier to control given that they knew nothing else except slavery and were closely connected to the household probably because their parents were slaves there.

I don't think Rome has an obligation to show slavery as a main theme as it's clear their focus is on the politics and army, but it would be nice if we saw them as more than just set dressing.

I didn't know that about serfs in Russia, but I guess it makes sense given that these people were mainly farmers (weren't they? Am I misremembering this?) and probably not terribly mobile because they had families. Plus I'd imagine the landowners still had most of the power making it difficult to make a huge change in your life regarding your relationship to them. But that is probably my lack of knowledge speaking.

Date: 2007-01-23 10:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexandral.livejournal.com
Thank you so much for this information!! I have always suspected this to be the case..

I guess the problem was that for someone uneducated and with the family (like in Russia, and yes, they were mainly farmers) there were no real way out. And for domestic slaves I can see how a sense of loyalty could develop.

Date: 2007-02-02 02:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vaznetti.livejournal.com
This is a fascinating post -- what I notice most, I think,is the way their interest in getting details of the material culture right is much stronger than getting the (elite) political history right (or even avoiding political howlers.) But you're also right to point out the way the social history is so old-fashioned and unquestioning of Roman upper-class attitudes -- Atia could practically have walked out of Juvenal, and many of the slaves out of Horace's Satires.

I've added you to my friends list, as you seem to have interesting things to say about both Rome and ancient history.

Date: 2007-02-03 06:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lesbiassparrow.livejournal.com
Visually the show looks great - and I do enjoy it. I do understand why they are writing it the way they do because I guess it is what most people are looking for when they tune into a show about Rome, but it still makes me sad because they have some great actresses and I think they waste them a bit.

I've just been reading some of your posts on Rome and enjoying them very much. I am not sure about me having interesting things to say about Roman history, but thank you for your kind words. :)

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