I recently read about Roberto Rosselilini, a famous Italian director who, in the later part of his career, suddenly stopped making movies. He believed film was dead and that television was going to be the new medium. Unfortunately he felt that most of the shows on television were complete crap (and this was back in the early 70's, I wonder what he would make of "reality" television). So he decided to bring history to life on the small screen creating television movies about famous historical figures.
I wonder what he would have made of HBO's "Rome". The series plunges the viewer into the ancient Roman world around 54 BC up to around 30 AD. It's full of war, sex, intrigue, double crossing, romance, tragedy, triumph, and heroism. So not only are you entertained by watching it, but the series has something for everyone and you get to learn a bit about history while you are watching.
The series covers all the high points of the early Roman Republic including the rise of Julius Caesar, his battles against Pompey, his assent to Emperor and his murder in the senate. In the second season, the aftermath of the death of Caesar entangles famous names such as Brutus, Mark Antony, Octavian, Cleopatra and Livia. The series ends with Octavian becoming Emperor over Rome and beginning the Roman Empire.
The series also introduces us to figures who aren't quite so lofty as generals, senators and Emperors. We meet lowly soldiers like Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Slaves like Posca and Eirene. Thugs and nar-do-wells like Timon and Quintus. We get a clearer insight into some of the powerful ladies of Rome, such as Atia, Octavia and Servillia. By weaving these other characters, some of them real some of them created for the series, the writers pull us into the action. We understand Vorenus' struggle to connect with his family after spending years battling barbarians in Gaul. We connect with the conflict of Timon who's dedication to Atia conflicts with his Jewish beliefs. And speaking of Atia, her scheming and battle of wills with Servillia is one of the highlights of the show. Both women are equally matched, but fate keeps dealing them deadly blows. It's fascinating to watch how they handle fortunes blessing and curses and how they deal with each other.
By creating such interesting characters and weaving the history as well as some interesting fiction (what really did happen to Caesar and Cleopatra’s son?) a show was created that not only brought the ancient world to life but held our attention. Watching the show on DVD with the historical track running at the same time is a real treat (for anyone interested in history). It repeats itself a bit here and there, but for the most part it goes into detail on all kinds of things from Roman diet (dormice!) to the types of units used during famous battles. All in all it is a package of entertainment and enlightenment all wrapped into one. I think Rossellini would have approved.
Do you think that it's possible to bring together history and entertainment in television? Did you see Rome? What did you think of it?