A couple of weeks ago I posted my thoughts about Spartacus: Blood and Sand but since then I’ve been watching Rome mostly directed by Michael Apted and produced by John Milius. Like Blood and Sand there is a good deal of sex and blood though it is framed quite differently: class is still the dominant divider between the Roman and the unRoman but desire in Rome is the drive that pushes civility toward civilisation.
The lust for dominance, for power and for world supremacy is inseparable from the ordinary everyday corporeal lust; in Rome they can’t really exist separately. Caesar and Pompey are both keen to have their fun with women but these drives are simply a by product of their desire to be top dog. The story is the same one Ronald Syme tells in The Roman Revolution, mapping the transition from Republic to Empire (and much the same as the political back story of the Star Wars saga) with many of the same emphases.
The Republic, pushing fast toward world domination, can’t possibly continue to operate on the basis of endless Senatorial chitchat. The Roman possessions throughout the Mediterranean are too vast for collective responsibility and too open for long distance corruption. The Senate, including a rather snivelly Cicero, is nothing more than a lunch club in this scheme of things and so the narrative of the piece is focused on the contest between Caesar and Pompey (Crassus appears for a while but then vanishes) leading toward the Civil War, Pharsalus, et tu Brute, and eventually the rise of Octavius as the dominant emperor.
There is much visual splendour throughout the series and it is terribly well done, though if you know the story precious little surprise. There isn’t much new ground, in fact there is a good deal to suggest that the writers were just a little too in love with Gibbon, but it does focus our attention on the power struggle. As befits a John Milius production (think Conan the Barbarian, think Big Wednesday) the real erotics of power are homoerotics, the fascia of muscle and oil is an orgy of masculine mutual admiration. In Rome it is blokes and only blokes who count, their muted desires to gain both approval from each other and to be strong enough to gain disapproval from each other lead to a long dance of amity and enmity.
These two aspects are represented through the two fictional characters (Vorenus and Titus) whose stories and perspectives are utilised to depict the end of the Republic. Both are limited characters, both have precious little time for women and resent deeply the limitations of their circumstances (imposed by class, location, and the function of the other). The endless crises of Rome are viewed as the obvious outcomes, autochthonous results from the zeitgeist of the moment and for Vorenus and Titus all that they can do is cope, adapt, engage in bricolage and hopefully arrive at an end befitting their journey. It is exactly the same for Caesar and Pompey.
The politics of Rome is then a politics of survival of the fittest, a lions and Christians situation in which the best you can hope for is to not be the Christians. Desire is reduced here to a survival animus in which politics is literally dog eat dog (well the barbarians eat the dogs really but the threat is there). Women? Slaves? Barbarians? UnRomans? They are all simply tools to ensure survival and the non-survival of one’s rivals. Desire is just hunger and hunger makes men rise from their beds and kill each other. It is a brutal politics in which only those prepared to stab anyone (family members, wives and husbands, one’s own children, strangers) will make it. Power is the prize for the toughest and only the ruthless will last long enough to win that prize. And from that prize all else derives. Sex, drink, admiration, respect, fear, and loathing: without the power there is nothing, no Rome.