I’m a sucker for Roman-era fiction, so no surprises that I’d watch TV series set on the same background 🙂
What to expect
The series follows the life of Livia Drusilla, Augustus’ wife and first empress of Rome. She was one of the most influential figures in politics and civic life of the early empire, and her importance for the whole rule of the Julio-Claudian dynasty can’t be overstated.
The series focuses on her and the other women, and their level of indirect involvement in Roman politics. It occasionally skips a few years, to frame events.
What I liked
Besides the subject matter, it’s great to see a series focusing on the women of the Roman world. Surviving contemporary sources were always written by and for the top 1% male citizenry, and sources from later periods often had an agenda on how to portray preceding ruling families. By shifting the the narrative from the wars and politics to the ‘household’ side — which included the dynastic machinations — we get a good story on this aspect.
I loved the physical setting of the show, the buildings, decorations, and general life. The (CGI, presumably) buildings and city-scapes were superbly done, really capturing the look of the period. While they got some things wrong (like a decorated, dark toga for daily wear in one scene), they also got some aspects nicely right.
For example, the way Scribonia makes a vow to Proserpina (the equivalent of Persephone). She asks the female deity to help her avenge her as a woman, and promises “do this for me, and I shall sacrifice 3 piglets, dates, and wine to you”. It highlights the contractual nature of the human-divine relationship in Roman culture.
On the other hand, one of Livia’s father favourite sayings in the show was “If you want to see the races, you have to pay at the gate”. While the meaning is clear, ancient Romans would have been surprised — games and races were always free, given as a public benefaction by magistrates and other wealthy individuals.
In terms of historical accuracy, this is still a TV show — a good story is more important. They got the gist of events mostly right, but don’t expect to quote them in any formal essay.
One quibble is with the poisoning of Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew. Not only has the series decided that the incumbent physician (Antonius Musa) was incompetent, and that Livia’s friend and former slave Antigone was the one to take the right action. Antigone was also reputedly the one who poisoned Livia’s first husband (after the divorce) and then supplied poison on Livia’s orders to kill Marcellus.
The trope of a woman using poison occurs so often and so vehemently in ancient Roman sources throughout the centuries, with Livia and the Julio-Claudian women in particular, that one has to wonder. So while it fits the narrative that contemporary sources might have felt comfortable with in regards to meddling women (and makes a good story for TV), it doesn’t necessarily match the current common view amongst historians about events (with Marcellus dying of the plague, a short while after Augustus recovered from it).
Felix was ambivalent about the show, but he often is — it doesn’t match his perception of what theatre should be like (unlike something like Up Pompeii, which is much more up his alley). Still, he has worked for similar influential women in his cases, and has always appreciated the underrated roles that slaves and freed-people play in behind-the-scenes politics.
He felt that, even though I was quibbling about a few things, the atmosphere of the show was certainly right for the period. And besides, it was a good show, and one he found more relatable than some of the more militaristic dramas.
It’s not the “boobs & swords” of Spartacus or the irreverence of Chelmsford 123, but closer in spirit to the 2005 TV series Rome. If you’ve watched and liked it and similar period dramas, you’ll certainly enjoy Domina.
Enjoying the reviews, but wondering who the heck is that Felix fellow? Glad you asked! He’s the protagonist of the Togas, Daggers, and Magic series, an historical-fantasy blend of a paranormal detective on the background of ancient Rome.
Come meet Felix and his world on the free short stories and novels!