TV Series Review: Roman Empire: “Reign of Blood”, and “Master of Rome”

Unlike the previous series I reviewed (Chelmsford 123 and Plebs), this is a docudrama. Or rather, dramatised scenes in between documentary commentary by notable historians and classicists.

The series is produced by Netflix, and it’s nice to see them tackle real history: this isn’t Starz’ Spartacus, which was very entertaining with all the blood and boobs, but was so historically off the mark it was funny.

What to expect

The two series are independent of each other. Series 1 – “Reign of Blood” – deals with the life of Commodus, while series 2 – “Master of Rome” – deals with the life of Caesar.

Reign of Blood

The series is presented as dramatised scenes from Commodus’ life, interspersed by commentary from notable historians, classicists, and authors. While there is obviously dramatic license in the acted scenes (depicting events that often happened behind closed door), there is considerable attention to historical detail (though see note below).

The experts present a compelling portrait of a complex man, with the reasons, background, and motivations behind his actions. While it may not be as entertaining as Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator (plagued by
Hollywood’s usual awesome-cinematography-despicable-historicity), I find the complex characterisation and historical accuracy a lot more interesting and engaging.

My only quibbles (and they are minor), is that there is the natural TV tendency to over-sensationalise some aspects, and that Commodus is clean-shaven. I can understand the first (in this day and age, it’s hard to find quietly balanced views outside of academic discourse) — but for the love of Rome: Commodus appears bearded in almost all surviving sculptures and art of his adulthood. You could have made the lead actor grow one, chiseled chin or not.

Also, all fight scenes are gladiatorial in nature, even the military ones. There’s a difference in fighting styles, people! Why can the movies never get historical military action right? But don’t worry, all of this is offset by the narrator of the series — Mr. Sean Bean himself.

Master of Rome

This series focuses on the life of Caesar, in pretty much the same format as with Commodus. There is dramatisation of scenes of his life, with the same panel of experts providing commentary to explain the forces driving events.

It’s a good summary of the man and his life, though perhaps because I know (a bit) more about Caesar than I do about Commodus I noticed more historical inaccuracies. For instance, the first episodes places Caesar with Crassus’ legions fighting Spartacus. It’s possible, but only because we don’t know much about Caesar’s time as a military tribune. He himself only made one comment years later, about “those who remember.” Placing him there as a definite event is a misrepresentation of what we know. Similarly with the over-dramatic assignment as governor of Gaul after his consulship — it wouldn’t have been the “almost-banishment” that the show presents it as (quite the opposite: governing a province was how high ranking politicians made money). And, just like in the series Rome (which had lot less pretension about accuracy), they forget the siege of Brundisium at 49BC when Caesar had Pompey trapped for a while. They also, due to focusing on Caesar, omit the many — many! — people that played important parts during this time: from Cato to Cicero, from Clodius to Cassius.

Add the usually unrealistic fights (what’s with the obsession of putting the general at the front lines?), the occasional inappropriate dress, the slip of Pompey facing Spartacus’ army broken survivors after returning from his conquests in East (he returned from fighting Sertorius in the West), and the same ‘couldn’t they have gotten the hair right‘ as with the previous season — and I take it as an opportunity to learn more as I double check everything 🙂

Still, it’s an entertaining watch, that will offer you an engaging and entertaining review, and if you take it more about the personalities of the people that exact events it will give you a good background of the driving forces. Pay more attention to what the historians say on the show, that to the dramatised scenes that are good only for background colour.

(If you’re into reading epic-scale historical fiction, I can’t recommend Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series enough! It’ll take longer than a TV show, but it is amazingly researched, extremely well executed and written, and you’ll end up know so much more about the background behind Caesar and the fall of the republic!)

Summary

If you’re interested in Commodus (i.e. if you’ve watched Gladiator and wondered about what it was really like), or if you’re interested in the end of the Principate era of the Roman empire in general and would like to learn more about one of the most important people of the time — this is an excellent series. Similar with the second season about Caesar, though I prefer Tony Robinson’s documentaries for better (though not perfect) historicity: even though they lack the dramatisation, Tony Robinson is extremely engaging and knows his stuff.

I’ve commented in the past how I use good historical fiction (a la Colleen McCullough or Steven Saylor) to learn more about history, by using the dramatisation to help people and events ‘stick’ in my mind while I go chasing down the rabbit hole of further research. This series is built on exactly these principles, with both drama and education built side by side.


Like my review about Roman books and series? How about reading some of the Roman-inspired stories I write? Free short stories and full novels.

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