Popular Imagination vs. Historical Reality: What does HBO’s Rome reveal about the practice of history?
The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000 led to a revival of literary and public interest in antiquity and the historical epic that had remained dormant for thirty-six years – the last successful historical epic about ancient Rome was Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
While historians tend to disseminate history through scholarly literature, directors disseminate historical narratives through film and storytelling. Both may employ different techniques, methodologies, approaches and target different audiences, but their role remains the same: they interpret, revise and produce a selective history that aligns with contemporary imagination. It is this similarity that has facilitated a partial reconciliation between the two; filmmakers aim to teach history by employing historical consultants to ensure historical ‘accuracy’, while historians turn to film to view, teach, and learn about history and its representation. To analyse film as both an art and text provides insight into the popular imagination of society toward historical events.
HBO’s Rome (2005-7) and Popular Imagination
While Gladiator inspired the return of the epic both in cinema and among historians, the HBO television series Rome shook popular conceptions of ancient Rome. Bruno Heller, executive producer and writer, stated that the primary aim of the series was to ‘deliver something fresh’, namely a historically stimulating and entertaining show that did not ‘take a kind of pastiche approach’ and allowed the audience to engage.[i] Christopher Lockett, a historian of film and popular culture, argued that Rome accounted for popular conceptions of history by deviating from standard depictions to incorporate a series of ‘accidental histories’, whereby the history of Rome is determined by unintended consequences, events and circumstances, that both thematically and narratively, worked toward ‘subtle dislocations of unitary and monolithic power and historical agency’ often found within individual actors like Julius Caesar.[ii] In doing so, the series is just as much about Rome during Caesar’s rule as it is about contemporary conceptions of popular culture and history. In order to analyse this interplay of history and imagination, a comparative study of reviews on websites such as IMDB message boards is illuminative.
According to four online message boards – IMDB, Amazon, Tv.com and Metacritic – reviewers who gave the show ten out of ten stars did so primarily due to its ability to be both historically accurate and entertaining. The general public admired the series’ ability to incorporate both ‘popular and intelligent entertainment and scholarship’ by interweaving ‘historical authenticity’ and ‘quality storytelling’ appropriate for television.[iii] While many recognised that Rome failed in some respects to achieve historical accuracy, they asserted that history itself was an act of storytelling, a ‘piece of art’ that can ideally be moulded to suit the entertaining nature of television.[iv] Reviewers tended to conclude that by playing around with historical facts, the series was able to be appropriately dramatic whereupon ‘fiction helped the story flow’ enough to ‘feel at Rome during Caesar’s day’.[v] By drawing together film as a form of art with history as storytelling, the reviewers emphasise the vitality of the filmmaker’s creative freedom in order to attract and educate the audience.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the creators of Rome attempt to use their creative licence to incorporate ‘historically marginalised and historically invisible actants’ such as Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus – the former a legionary, the latter a centurion – in order to demonstrate how unintentional consequences can shape the course of Roman history.[vi] One reviewer extensively commented on the series’ unique interplay of history and fiction, stating:
What Rome does most successfully, I think, is to make the two least historical characters the most memorable. While Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are mentioned only in passing in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, here they dominate the storyline, offering a credible backdrop for the main ‘historical’ events and characters whose exploits and fame are well known to the history books. How fitting was it that in the series finale the coldly calculating Octavian, the future Augustus and first emperor of Rome, shakes the hand of lowly plebe Titus Pullo, his only true friend in the world…[vii]
For classicist Monica S. Cyrino it is precisely this interplay that enables Rome to ‘invite the audience into the grand historical account’ and offer viewers ‘a close-up of how history is made’.[viii] By creating a personalised account of these two characters in the retelling of historical events, audiences were able to connect with the events and characters despite the boundaries of time. As one reviewer noted, by incorporating the characters of Pullo and Vorenus, the series was able to ‘remind us [the audience] that these figures were people in all the complexity of motivation that we experience in people today’ – an account that would not have been possible had the perspectives been rooted in aristocratic personalities like Caesar.[ix]
The result is a kind of history that is not driven but ridden; rather than a planned teleology devised by great men, the history of Rome is an accident, comprised of unforeseen circumstances that can be attributed to the problem of antiquity. Classicist Mary Beard’s analysis of the study of ancient history perfectly aligns with the methodology employed by the creators of Rome. Beard wrote:
At its best, the study of ancient history is as much about how we know as what we know. It involves an engagement with all the processes of selection, constructive blindness, revolutionary reinterpretation, and wilful misinterpretation that together produce the ‘facts’… out of the messy, confusing, and contradictory evidence that survives.[x]
Rome most certainly took advantage of the limitations surrounding antiquity to provide a perfect mix of historical accuracy and entertainment in an attempt to distinguish itself from its predecessors. It is precisely this deliberate restructuring of history that causes tensions between historians and filmmakers to emerge.
History in Images and History in Words
Central to the debate surrounding the tensions between history and film is historian Robert A. Rosenstone. Rosenstone highlights that academic historians who criticise film for deviating away from historical reality, fail to take into account that written history is just as much shaped by conventions of language and genre as film is by production and popular imagination, especially films representing the ancient past.[xi]
Rome attempts to connect to the audience through its unique medium of visual appeal; it has the advantage to cater to popular imaginations that no other medium can match in terms of depth and breadth of audience influence. Rome’s opening credits successfully offer a sense of familiarity by incorporating a mix of desire, spectacle and triumph with that of a tangible, believable and recognisable past that resonates with the values of the present. This mix is illustrated through the vibrant colours of graffiti written on Roman walls to present an authentic feel to the Roman lifestyle, against the backdrop of markets bustling with people from different social backgrounds.[xii] From the outset, Rome encapsulates everyday life and its peculiarities. As demonstrated in Rome’s dual aim to educate and entertain, the art of filmmaking itself cannot be subject to the standards of academic history.
The argument for historical accuracy is further muddied in relation to visual depictions of antiquity. Like filmmakers, scholars of antiquity have been known to incorporate historical reality and popular imagination in their literary works. Referred to as ‘sensational historiography’, ancient historians were convinced that historical amplification through the elaboration of historical events was a unique and distinguished practice as it generated ‘pleasing effects’ and in turn, stimulated and engaged audiences.[xiii] For example, ancient Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200 – 118 BC) comments on how Phylarchus (c. 215 BC) wrote not to present facts, but to engage his readers, writing ‘carelessly’ and never missing ‘an opportunity to emphasise the lurid details’.[xiv]
Similarly, Rome has taken on historically marginalised ancient figures like Atia Balba Caesonia (58 – 43 BC), the mother of emperor Augustus, and interwoven her in the series as Atia of the Julii. The makers of Rome took several liberties in their representation of Atia: while ancient historian Tacitus (c. 56 – 120 AD) describes her as a religiously pious and admired Roman matron, the Atia of Rome is canny, headstrong and sexually voracious.[xv] The makers of Rome willingly deviated from historical records in an attempt to appeal to popular imagination. One reviewer described Atia as a ‘voracious wonder… bad to her beautiful bones’, with others admiring her portrayal as an ‘ambitious political strategist’.[xvi] Perhaps this is why characters like Atia drew in over three million viewers per episode.[xvii]
Likewise, the inherent evidentiary problems of antiquity also bring about tensions between historical consultants and filmmakers. Without a ‘universally agreed factual basis for film’, filmmakers are left with no alternative but to succumb to imagination to tell stories of the ancient past.[xviii] If historians are consulted to provide advice on the representation of historical material, they are often called upon only after a script is written or when filming has begun. They rarely have direct involvement in historical filmmaking. Rosenstone contends that this tension primarily arises due to a lack of understanding: few filmmakers are trained historians and few historians are trained filmmakers.[xix] This relationship becomes difficult for historical consultants like Kathleen Coleman who discovered that preference for artistic innovation saw her historical advice be pushed aside in the making of Gladiator, which, for her, was an attitude indicative of the assumption that audiences take no interest in debates concerning historical authenticity in film.[xx]
Interestingly, however, for Jonathan Stamp, the historical consultant of Rome, it is the obligation of filmmakers to entertain the audience by telling stories and it is not for the historical consultant to say what did not happen, but to find ways of presenting an authentic past – to be authentic is to ‘get the details right’ through costumes, architectures, colours, movements, gestures, hairdos, and dynamism of interactions.[xxi] Only then can a historian generate debate among the audience as to the representation of history in film.[xxii] David Eldridge has observed, based on an assessment of three hundred films, that when producing an interpretation of the past, ‘the filmmaker has interacted with professional historiography, public attitudes, political utilisation of history and the conventions of the historical film genre to craft a narrative and style that convey a perspective on the past through cinematic means’.[xxiii] Both the historical consultant and filmmaker produce an interpretation of the past that aligns just enough with historical reality as it does with popular imagination. It is for this reason that Rome has proved popular, both for its appeal – storytelling, excellent writing and authentic historical detail – and repulsiveness – excessive sex, anachronism and soap opera tendencies.
The Challenge of the Visual
History and film are seldom grouped together as uniquely individual mediums of historical representation. Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker, proclaimed that scholars tend to ‘speak only to themselves’ when they present a past that is dense with historical facts, leading to a rising disinterest toward historical studies from the public as history becomes too ‘anti-narrative’.[xxiv] On the other hand, historians like Robert Brent Toplin assert that while academic history can be ‘anti-narrative’, it exposes its readers to historiographical debates and multiple perspectives in a way that film cannot.[xxv] He thus concludes that films ‘rarely give audiences a sense of the challenges in historical representation’ as they ‘imply that the study of history is a tidy operation’.[xxvi] It is precisely this perspective of film that Rome challenges.
Rome proposes an alternative presentation of history; it attempts to challenge popular perceptions of history as being a linear sequence of events by offering an authentic retelling of Rome in which unpredictability reigns supreme. Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus are treated as agents of change; both their luck and misfortune prove crucial to the events of Roman history as depicted in Rome. In this way, Rome is able to cleverly fashion the relationship between everyday history and the history of big events, and offer a new ‘branding’ of the historical epic. According to Stamp, the past helps filmmakers and historians alike to ‘brand’ stories in a way where the audience becomes familiar with a particular storyline or plot and thus rarely anticipate the end result. Rome has attempted to shift popular imagination away from the standard historical genre to ‘offer something fresh’.[xxviii] The world of Rome is therefore ‘much more exotic, and strange, and unexpected, and slightly bizarre than the Rome we have been given all these years’.[xxix]
Indeed, while in the last episode of season one Caesar falls to his death – a historical event universally known, Rome at the same time shook preconceived notions of Caesar’s death by making it appear as an accidental historical event.[xxx] Various historical accounts and literary works explain the multiple warnings Caesar received about his death. Ancient historians Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD) and Suetonius (c. 69 – 122 AD), for example, recount that Caesar set off to the Senate house after heavy persuasion from Brutus, surrounded by no other but his contemporaries.[xxxi] In Rome Caesar is accompanied by Lucius Vorenus, Marc Antony and surrounded by a few others. Though instructed by Caesar not to leave his side, Vorenus was pulled aside by Atia’s slave who reported troubles at home. Vorenus’ decision to leave the procession indirectly led to Caesar’s inevitable downfall. In Rome, it is the coincidences of everyday circumstances that trigger major historical events. Through the displacement of hierarchies between fictional and historical actors, the coherence of conventional historiography is transformed to illustrate the contingency of historical action.
By intertwining the history of big events with the history of the everyday, Rome encapsulates the complexities of Roman history in an attempt to, in the eyes of Stamp, ‘go through the portal of historical detail into an authentic archetypal world that resonates with people’.[xxxii] Of course, HBO’s success with Rome lies in its ability to realistically portray historical characters in a human context, like that of Pullo and Vorenus. In fact, in an online history forum one reviewer praised Rome for taking this approach, stating that when films or shows are made about Rome, they almost always portray the ‘glory’ and ‘achievements’, rarely capturing the ‘down-and-dirty everyday urban life’ of Rome.[xxxiii] Thus, Rome was able to shift popular conceptions of history away from just politics toward an intertwining with the social.
While classicists Alastair Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin state that Rome may never have had ‘regular orgies, saluted its emperors with raised arms, or condemned gladiators to die with a downward point of the thumb’, it is film that has allowed these representations of historical events to become ‘absolute mainstays of popular conceptions about Roman culture’.[xxxiv] This observation highlights the importance of the duality of both historical reality and popular imagination, for both film and written history. Without one or the other, neither medium will deliver a comprehensive understanding of historical events.
Mirela Kadrić has just finished a Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences, with a major in History and Political Economy, at the University of Sydney. She is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History. She plans to write her honours thesis on the construction of Bosnian Muslim identity before, during and after the Bosnian War (1992-95). She is interested in historiography, theories of nationalism and national identity, and has extensively studied 19th-20th century Russian history.