Series: Ancient Rome The Rise And Fall Of An Empire
Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire
was a six-part Docudrama
created for The BBC
which aired in 2006. Set in Ancient Rome
, the series looks at six important events in Rome's history - namely, the rise of Gaius Julius Caesar
, the Fire of Rome in the reign of Nero, The Jewish Wars and the rise of the Flavians, the career of the notorious Tiberius Gracchus, the rise of Constantine, and the fall of Rome.
It was created in response to the recent popularity of film and TV about the ancient world which played rather fast and loose with the facts
, endeavouring to create a series which stuck rather closely to what historical texts tell us, as well as using consultation from some of the most respected ancient historians of the time. The result was rather less well-received than many of the more lavish and less historically-accurate series with which it contended, but it provides some very well-written interpretations of the events it portrays. Highlights include Michael Sheen
giving it his all as Nero, as well as the final episode which maintains strong dramatic tension throughout.
This series provides examples of:
- Adipose Rex: Maxentius.
- A God Am I: Constantine is accused of this by his sister after apparently co-opting Christianity for his own ends.
- Anachronism Stew:
- The series had a habit of reusing footage. Which means that especially expensive scenes will start to crop up repeatedly, even when the people in those scenes look nothing like people of the time period in which they supposedly appeared. Expect to see Late Republican soldiers fighting in the early 5th century, for instance.
- Small details also stand out, like Vespasian's beekeeping outfit from the Renaissance era, and senators wearing socks with sandals (while the Romans had socks, they never would have worn them with sandals outside Roman Britain, where the unbearable cold made for Fashion Dissonance).
- A Party Also Known as an Orgy: Nero has one in Athens, complete with him dressing as a satyr and having wine poured on his face by serving-girls. It ends with him castrating a pretty male slave and "marrying" him.
- Arc Words:
- "Who will fight with me?" for Caesar.
- "Rule as the gods rule" and "Not enough" for Nero.
- Artistic Licence History: Despite its best efforts:
- Julius Caesar never decimated a rebellious legion. By all accounts, he managed to end the depicted rebellion just by speaking the single word "Quirites (Romans)", which reminded them of their duty to the Republic and to Caesar.
- Lactantius is one of our main sources for the battle of Milvian Bridge, and therefore influences the portrayal of said battle. However, he got a lot of details wrong about the battle, because he was never there, unlike what the show depicts.
- Likewise, if Constantine had really painted the sign of Christ on every soldier's shield, or forced them to forsake the Eagles and march under his new standard then he would have had a mass mutiny on his hands. Any soldier of any religion would have felt fierce devotion to the Eagles. Constantine more likely allowed his soldiers to openly call upon whatever gods they worshipped before this battle because the stakes were so high. Basically, Constantine was not as callously offensive towards Rome's traditional gods as he is made out to be in his episode.
- Alaric's destruction of Rome was really not as cataclysmic as it is made out to be: in the series, it's presented as if he burned down everything but the churches, whereas only a few buildings in the historical city centre got significantly damaged in real life.
- As the Good Book Says: Alaric sprinkles his language with very Christian phrases, such as "Promised Land" and "your souls".
- Authority in Name Only:
- Honorius is the Western Emperor, but since he is only a teenager, he is extremely prone to manipulation from his advisors, especially the conniving Olympius.
- Likewise, even after being crowned Emperor himself, Attalus is only ever Alaric's puppet, and the latter makes it clear that he would cut off the former's head if it suited him.
- At the same time, the Senate of Rome in Honorius' time has devolved into an irrelevant old relic. Although Alaric makes good use of what little power they do have.
- Badass: In keeping with Rome's reputation as a World of Badass.
- Badass Beard: Any barbarian with a bit of clout has one.
- Badass Bookworm: Josephus.
- Badass Family: Titus and his dad.
- Bald of Awesome: Matho.
- Colonel Badass: Gracchus took part in the sack of Carthage at the age of twenty.
- Four-Star Badass: Gosh, where to start - Vespasian, Titus, Pompey, Sarus, Constantine, Scipio Aemilianus, Mark Antony, and, of course, Gaius Julius Caesar.
- Retired Badass: Vespasian, at least initially (the retired part - he never stops being badass)
- Bald of Evil: Sarus and Olympius.
- Beard of Evil: Maxentius.
- Barbarian Longhair: Yohanan, Josephus, Athaulf, the Spanish barbarians Gracchus encounters.
- Beard of Evil: Maxentius.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: The more sympathetic characters are usually the prettiest. Contrast Constantia (sweet, virtuous, and cute), Galla Placidia (snobbish but ultimately kind-hearted, she's attractive if rather po-faced), Poppaea (the most sympathetic character in her respective episode), and Gracchus (a handsome young man) with Maxentius (a fat, ugly tyrant), Nasica (old, wrinkly, and heartless), and Caesar (thuggish and brutal).
- Big Ol' Eyebrows: Mancinus. They're really long and tufty.
- Black and Grey Morality:
- Olympius is evil, incompetent, and bigoted and a horrible influence on Honorius, but after he leaves the more reasonable Jovius suggests that they starve Rome simply to make Attalus look bad.
- Nero and the senators who want him dead, respectively.
- Constantine is rather ruthless and warmongering, but his enemies are much worse.
- Blue and Orange Morality: Commonly the focus is more on seeing what motivates characters in the ways they shape history than in constructing any sort of good vs. evil narrative.
- Broken Aesop: Most of Alaric's negotiations are an attempt to show Honorius that he is not an unreasonable thug and that it's better for him if he concedes peacefully and treats them like people. Then his hand is forced and he sacks Rome, leaving Honorius embittered and wailing that the barbarians are nothing but animals.
- The Caligula: Nero, obviously.
- Call to Agriculture: All Alaric and his Goths wanted was a bit of land to settle on and farm...
- Camp Gay:
- Caesar in real life was most definitely not heterosexual (perhaps most simply described as bisexual, although Roman sexual orientation is a lot more complex than ours), but at the same time he was most definitely not as camp as Sean Pertwee portrays him.
- Nero is a Depraved Bisexual and extremely camp.
- Chewing the Scenery:
- Michael Sheen seems to be having the time of his life playing Nero.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Often averted; to maintain historical accuracy, many of the Roman armies shown, unlike in other TV shows, often are shown wearing drab greys and tans, unlike the brilliant (and expensive) reds in which they are usually dressed. However, in some cases, this trope is still played straight:
- Caesar's army incorporate a lot more red into their attire.
- Constantine's troops wear purple, while his enemies tend to wear red.
- Dawson Casting:
- 37-year-old Michael Sheen plays Nero from the age of 25 to his death at 30.
- Averted with Cato: while his actor in the HBO series appears, he plays Marcus Marcellus, rather than the much younger Cato, played by the more appropriately middle-aged Crispin Redman.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Poppaea reminded Nero that he dropped his sceptre. Poor, poor, Poppaea...
- Establishing Character Moment:
- Caesar is shown for the first time fighting in the Battle of Alesia.
- Nero is shown at the head of a band of thugs beating up street performers for his own amusement.
- Vespasian and Titus are first seen when the latter, clad in full armour, relates news of the war to the former, as he tends to his bees.
- The young Tiberius Gracchus is seen at his father's funeral, having the imposing legacy of his family impressed upon him, showing us the huge amount of pressure he has had to live up to his bloodline.
- Ten years later, we see him taking in the sight of Carthage, Rome's long-standing enemy, just before it is destroyed.
- Constantine is first seen on his march to Rome in the opening, followed soon after by him screaming "One Empire, One God, One Emperor!"
- Alaric is first seen just before marching on Rome.
- Eye Scream: Salt is rubbed into a man's eye as a form of torture.
- Face of a Thug: Alaric, Berig, Matho, Sarus, even Gaius Julius Caesar!
- Fat Bastard / Fat Idiot: Maxentius.
- Food Porn: Averted: when meat appears in the show, it is used to make its eater look menacing. And then there's the torture scene in Nero's episode.
- Foregone Conclusion: Most of the episodes open with a quick run-down of what's about to happen in the episode, so even those with no prior knowledge of Roman history are informed that Nero goes mad, Constantine establishes Christianity, Rome will be sacked by barbarians, etc.
- General Failure: Mancinus and Maxentius.
- Nero too - in response to the rebellion of Vindex, he decides he will sing the rebel threat away.
- Gory Discretion Shot:
- Nero kicking Poppaea to death is obscured by a heavy marble table. We can tell just how hard he is kicking her because the table itself moves as he kicks her.
- Averted in the same episode: When Nero stabs himself in the throat, we get a nice long look as the dagger goes in...
- Heroic BSOD:
- Gracchus has one after his house is ransacked and his father's death mask is smashed.
- Constantine has one after an attempt to assassinate him is discovered.
- Alaric has one after learning the Emperor has betrayed him again.
- Historical Hero Upgrade:
- Alaric is easily the most sympathetic character in the episode where he appears, and he burned Rome to the ground.
- One has to wonder whether Tiberius Gracchus was nearly as selfless as his episode makes him out to be. Was he genuinely concerned about the welfare of the people he spoke for, or was he doing so to accrue power?
- Even Nero gets hit with this - despite all the genuinely horrible things he did, you can't help but feel sorry for him as he is about to die. Helped by the fact that his Famous Last Words are slightly altered so he at least acknowledges the horrors he perpetrated during his reign.
Nero: "Whatever else they may think of me, they will have lost a great artist."
- Historical Villain Upgrade:
- Caesar loses a lot of the positive traits for which he was most famous: instead of being charismatic, noble, and generally likeable, here he becomes thuggish, violent, and megalomaniacal, traits for which Pompey was ironically more well-known.
- Yohanan was likely not the uncompromising and unreasonable zealot he is made out to be, although he did indeed unintentionally make the sack of Jerusalem much easier for the Romans.
- Hoist by His Own Petard:
- Yohanan digs a tunnel under Jerusalem's wall to destabilise the siege tower's platform. He succeeds in destabilising the tower, and then the wall comes down with it.
- Maxentius rigs the Milvian Bridge so that it will collapse as soon as an army crosses it. Then starts charging up and down the bridge when Constantine refuses to cross it.
- Inelegant Blubbering:
- Nero after killing his wife. There's a lot of screaming and dribbling and tearing of curtains.
- Honorius after Rome is sacked.
- Large Ham: Rome, after all, is a World of Ham.
- Michael Sheen as Nero is accompanied with a lot of screaming, melodrama, and Chewing the Scenery.
- Constantine is rather fond of hamminess.
- Maxentius has his moments.
- Nasica would like to calmly and quietly inform you that Tiberius intends to be king.
- Manipulative Bastard: Olympius will always get his way despite how horrible his ideas are, because he insists his course of action will make Honorius, a teenage boy, appear strong and uncompromising.
- Perpetual Frowner. Alaric. And can you really blame him?
- Primal Stance: Nero hunches threateningly over a plate of cold meats when interrogating the senators.
- Prophecy Twist: Maxentius is so blind to his incompetence that he doesn't realise the ambiguity of the statement that "The enemy of Rome will fall".
- Real Men Love Jesus:
- Played straight with Alaric - he was historically an Arian Christian and thus orders his men to spare the churches when he sacks Rome.
- Zig-zagged with Constantine: he is portrayed as a zealous Christian, but the reasons why he is so eager to support this new cult are questionable.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Jovius is the only one of Honorius' advisers who takes care to treat him like an adult.
- Replacement Goldfish: Invoked by Nero: he castrates a male slave and refers to him as his late wife, Poppaea, declaring that now his wife's beauty would outlive her.
- Sanity Slippage: The last five years of Nero's life are just him getting progressively more unhinged.
- Constantine and Alaric look like they could be suffering from a minor case of this.
- Stock Footage: Many scenes within the series are reused in multiple episodes, Typically, these will be the more expensive battle scenes which are hard to replicate.
- Stock Footage Failure: However, this opens the series up to a lot of Anachronism Stew, as well as crowd characters somehow living for centuries. Also, at one point where Stock Footage of the previous episode would have been useful and relevant (when the fall of Nero is being narrated), for some reason footage of Nero is not used.
- The Queen's Latin: Also extends to The Queen's Hebrew and The Queen's Gothic - essentially, anyone with a high social class within their nation will sound like a middle-class Brit. Expect to see lower-class people within the Roman Empire with Greek-sounding names paired with Cockney accents.
- Too Dumb to Live: Maxentius - see Hoist by His Own Petard.
- Upper-Class Twit: Quite a few among the senate at various point, but Honorius and Attalus stand out the most.
- Villainous Breakdown: Nero, Maxentius, Honorius.
- Wicked Cultured: Nero.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: The entirety of Episode 6, where both the Romans and Goths are attempting to ensure they get their own way and there's manipulation going on between each side and within each side. No wonder Alaric gets frustrated and sacks Rome in the end.