Friday, November 25, 2005

Roma et Augustus vivat

Rome was a highly civilised place with carefully defined rights and laws for different kinds of people that made the republic a quite bearable place to be for 400 years. If you weren't a slave, and very often if you were. That's twice as long as the American republic has so far managed, and it had slavery for all of that time. Go figure. Of course, I wouldn't want to go and live in the Rome of 2000 years ago now, but if a freak wormhole event took me back to that time, there could be worse places.

Those laws weren't much good if a future Emperor and his thuggish bodyguard decided to torture and murder you in a sewer for sleeping with thuggish bodyguard's best friend's wife, but those are the breaks.

Yes, I watched Rome last night. And have every episode so far. And will doubtless continue. It's fun.

Young Octavian is the star of the show and also a prime example of why we shouldn't take it too seriously. The real item's mother was an exemplar of Roman matronly virtue and he was never referred to as Octavian in his lifetime -- he was Octavius, after his father, until later historians decided otherwise. But at least this way we all get to know who he is.

He's played by a teen actor called Max Pirkis, who was the one-armed midshipman in Master & Commander, now a few inches taller and deeper voiced. He was the moral heart of that film; here he is the centre of gravity. As he grows, so will events come to centre more and more about him. Uncle Julius will bring down the republic, but it will take Octavian, as the Emperor Augustus, to perpetuate the mighty empire we've all come to love. Meanwhile, like Octavian, we take a seat and watch events unfurl about him. Last night was a leap forward, as for the first time we see him leaving the maternal home, doing things on his own initiative, and being a right ruthless machiavellian little brute while he's about it. One day he will have to stand up to Mark Antony, 20 years his senior. I can already believe he will do that.

Octavian was 18 when Caesar died; he had to march to Rome to claim his inheritance, knowing that he would either end up as boss, or dead. And modern teenagers worry about spots and GCSEs. That's the great triumph of Rome. It gives us recogniseable human beings with recogniseable human nature that we can relate to, and it makes them as alien as creatures from another world.

(Caesar's name became the title for future Emperors and gives as words like Kaiser and Tsar. What would it have been like if Pompey had won? And what would Portsmouth now call themselves?)

Caesar himself is played brilliantly by Ciaran Hinds, though the actor playing his slave Posca may have been a better choice as the real JC was similarly challenged in the follicle department. My only hangup is that his slightly dry voice and his way of looking at you askance make me think of Peter Cook. Specifically, Peter Cook playing Richard III in The Black Adder. Nowhere was this more evident than a couple of weeks ago with Caesar making grand speeches to rouse the hearts of his men. "Let Pompey's genitals be hung upon a tree in Rutland!" As Caesar probably didn't say, but probably should have.

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