Why HBO’s Rome S1 E1 is the Perfect First Episode (Part I: Themes)

If you remember, I had the TV show Rome on the list of things I want to watch this past summer (link here). I started and finished the first season of the show within a single week (a reason why binge-watching is bad). As you can tell, I really enjoyed watching the show, both as a casual viewer and as a Roman history enthusiast. The whole season is great, but I would like to focus on its first episode – the one that instantly captured my attention. I don’t use the word “perfect” lightly, but I believe this episode deserves it. Here, I would like to explain why Rome season 1 episode 1 is the perfect introductory episode, and perhaps encourage you to give it a try. 

Also, I would like to bring your attention to the history of the Late Roman Republic – arguably the most exciting period of history – that the show covers and its attempt at the restoration of this fascinating Roman world. Despite some alterations and simplifications for the sake of a more engaging narrative, the show’s historical accuracy both in its depiction of the Roman civilization and the vivid characters in all their details deserves more appreciation. I will try my best to present all the details of this historical period that I recognized and enjoyed from the show. For historical references, I will be citing mostly from Greek historian Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which includes a collection of biographies of Roman figures. Plutarch depicts the lives of characters like Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Cato in great details, which the show draws its inspiration from. 

Although it is actually history, I would try to limit myself to discuss what is shown in episode 1 and avoid spoiling anything else. 

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Caesar died at the end. 

Alright I will stop joking… 

Introductory Sequence

Rome, Introductory Sequence

“Four hundred years after the last king was driven from the city, the Republic of Rome rules many nations, but cannot rule itself. The city is constantly roiled by conflict between the common people and the nobility. Power is shared, and order maintained by two soldiers, old friends Gnaeus Pompey Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar. Once, Pompey was acknowledged by all to be the greater man, but for the last eight years, while Pompey has kept the peace in Rome, Caesar has waged a war of conquest in Gaul, that has made him even more rich and popular. The balance of power is shifting, and the nobility have grown fearful – though of noble blood himself, Caesar stands with the common people. A man like that, an aristocrat with soldiers, money and the love of the people… Might make himself king.” —Rome, Season 1 Ep. 1, narration

This introductory narration not only gives the basic background of Rome but also its three central conflicts that will play out throughout this season. 

Firstly, this sequence presents the two dominant figures in the Late Roman Republic: Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar. We see their friendship and alliance in keeping peace and stability of the Roman Republic; but also, we sense a hint of rivalry between the two for power and greatness. 

This also reveals the conflict between the common people and the nobility. It is made apparent that this struggle has plagued the Roman Republic since its foundation. It is not only a struggle between the social classes, but also a political one. Caesar, though an aristocrat himself, sided with the causes of the populace against the conservative elites, winning the support and the love of the people. 

Finally, it sketches the competition between two forms of government: autocracy and democracy. In the first sentence, we watch the history of Rome with respect to its government: Rome was founded by a king, but after a dozen generations the people overthrew the last tyrant and established the republic. Yet four hundred years later when the republican system was failing its people, there seemed to be a growing desire for an alternative solution. The current state of the Republic was dire: the order was kept by two warlords – Pompey and Caesar – alone. The last sentence warns the possibility of a new king: if this delicate balance of power is broken, and if Caesar emerges victorious with unchallenged rule, he will become the sole master of Rome; and with the support of the people, he may be crowned as the new king of Rome. 

We will discuss these three central conflicts in detail focusing on historical perspectives later. 

Opening Sequence

Rome, Opening Sequence

Though the opening sequence is not unique to the first episode, I would still like to spend some time talking about this sequence and its underlying significance. 

What is our memory of Rome? We may remember Rome for its grand empire surrounding the Mediterranean world with its scale and longevity no other empire can rival; we may remember Rome for the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the triumphal arches, all its magnificent monuments displaying its glory. We remember Rome as, in the first Emperor Augustus’ words, a city of marble. Yet this view is only one particular angle of the Roman world through a lens that is romanticized (pun intended). 

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Gallery of Views of Ancient Rome, 1758

The opening sequence of Rome paints a completely different picture of the Roman world that we often ignore. It depicts the lives of the common people, not the ruling elites. We watch the dark, narrow alleyways, the dirty clothes and unsanitized environment, and most noticeably, the vulgar inscriptions and graffiti on the wall. Instead of showing the senatorial elites in their white toga and giant villae, this sequence peaks into the lives of the ordinary citizens. Yet it was these urban poor that made up the great majority of the population of Rome. The show’s comprehensive depiction of the daily living of the soldiers, merchants, craftsmen, housewives, and many other commoners dwelling in this vast empire of Rome, I would say, is one of its greatest strengths. 

The Stage

Episode 1 presents the basic background setting as this: in 50 BC, two old friends Caesar and Pompey governed the Roman Republic as co-consuls, the highest public office of the republic. In Rome, Pompey kept the order while facing fierce opposition as well as temptation from the optimates, the conservative faction in the senate. Faraway in Gaul, Caesar led a military campaign that culminated in the defeat of the Gallic king Vercingetorix. There, he received the news of the death of his daughter Julia, who was the wife of Pompey, in childbirth. Caesar and the optimates both sought to win Pompey to their side, which played out through the selection for Pompey’s new bride. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that Pompey remarried Cornelia, the daughter of Metellus Scipio, a leading member of the optimates

Vercingetorix surrendering to Julius Caesar

In a few simple scenes, episode 1 builds the stage for the rest of the show. The co-consulship of Caesar and Pompey represents their alliance as well as their status as the two most dominant figures in Rome. The defeat of Vercingetorix proves Caesar to be an accomplished military commander. The death of Julia shows the breaking of bond between Caesar and Pompey tied by family marriage, and Pompey’s re-marriage with Cornelia signals the end of his partnership with Caesar and his siding with the optimates

This timeline fits perfectly for the show’s narrative. However, it is a condensed version of the actual story. Here I will present the historical timeline for comparison. 

You may have heard of Caesar’s little secret friend group called the “First Triumvirate”. It’s not a coincidence that it has the prefix “trium” denoting the number three, just like the prefix “tri” in English. So, who’s the third buddy of Caesar and Pompey that was omitted in the show? In 60 BC, Caesar formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey and a man named Crassus, who was known as “the richest man in Rome”. This alliance was secured by the marriage of Caesar’s daughter Julia to Pompey. With the support of his new allies, Caesar was easily elected consul the next year. After his term, he was appointed governor over Transalpine Gaul for five years, where he promptly began his grand campaign in. Their alliance was renewed in 56 BC at the Luca Conference, resulting in Pompey and Crassus being elected consuls for the next year and Caesar’s command in Gaul being extended for an additional five years. 

However, the death of Julia in childbirth in 54 BC deteriorated their relations. Further, Crassus was killed in a humiliating defeat in his campaign against Parthia in 53 BC (hence why he did not appear in the show), which broke the balance of power within the Triumvirate. Caesar defeated Vercingetorix at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC and effectively completed his Gallic conquest. On the other side, Pompey solidified his power in Rome. He was asked by the senate to restore order in the riotous Rome and appointed as the sole consul in 52 BC. That year he married Cornelia, the daughter of his chosen co-consul, Metellus Scipio. The alliance between Caesar and Pompey was dead. This power struggle between Caesar and Pompey would continue and eventually culminating in the full-blown Civil War. 

The Optimates in the Roman Senate

This is also the same story structure Plutarch frames in the Life of Caesar. In section 27 Plutarch depicts the Battle of Alesia, finishing off with the surrender of Vercigentorix at Caesar’s feet. Immediately following that in section 28, Plutarch begins with the sentence “it had long been a plan of Caesar’s to bring about the downfall of Pompey – just as it had been of Pompey’s to do the same to Caesar, of course,” which opens his narrative on Caesar’s conflict with Pompey. 

Caesar’s domination in his Gallic Wars earned him the fame that rivaled or even surpassed that of Pompey the Great. With the completion of his campaign, he now had the full freedom to fulfill the next phase in his ambition to become the greatest man in Roman history. Pompey, fearing Caesar’s sudden rise in power and popularity, allied himself with the senate and lent them his hand when the opportunity presented itself. With the support of the senate, Pompey obtained unchecked authority and became the most powerful man in the city. 

Episode 1 of Rome sets up the perfect stage for the final showdown between these two great men Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus, once friends and now enemies. 

Central Conflicts

The Battle between Two Giants: Caesar versus Pompey

Although many social, economical, and political issues caused the turmoil in the Roman Republic, its history was ultimately determined by and played out through the struggle between individuals: Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Octavian and Antony. Rome as a historical drama show relies on a good narrative. Detailing all these background social and political factors in a historical drama show would be ultimately… boring to the audience. 

Then, what’s a better story than the clash between two great rivals? Every protagonist needs their main antagonist. For Pompey and Caesar, that’s each other. And as we have seen, their rivalry has a very complex yet engaging backstory, and the stage is set up perfectly. Thus, using the personal conflict between Caesar and Pompey as the backbone of the narrative is a good choice. 

The vast empire, stretching from the coast of Northern Gaul across the British isles to the Euphrates river running in Anatolia, was not enough for these two men, for their ambition to be “the greatest.” This war between Caesar and Pompey may be the grandest military conflict that the Antiquity would witness; and perhaps, the one that would decide the fate of the Roman civilization and the entire Mediterranean world for the next hundred years. 

The rest of the two central conflicts then add further substance and complexity to this personal rivalry. 

The Populace versus the Elites

There have always been conflicts between the people and the elites since the dawn of human civilization. The Roman Republic was no exception. 

Through the sack of Carthage and subjugation of Greece in mid 2nd century BC, Rome’s continual imperial expansion had gained enormous wealth for the aristocrats. The upper class used the wealth to purchase land in Italy in expanding their plantations, multiplying their fortune while pushing the traditional farmers into the cities or distant colonies. This harmful cycle of wealth led to the egregious wealth disparity we’ve seen in the Late Republic. As the elites were given a greater share of votes and influence in the republic, they held firm control over the government, leaving the fate of the people out of their own hands. 

The show frames the conflict as the patricians against the plebeians – what we now use as slang for the uncultured, ordinary folks – and you hear these terms being thrown out often in the series. However, I would like to point out that this was not entirely the case in the Late Republic. In Rome’s early history, the most prestigious families were selected to be given the rank of patricians, well the rest of its inhabitants became the plebeians. The patricians were indeed in absolute control of the Roman society, with exclusive rights to be elected government magistrates, senators, and priests. The class division between the patricians and the plebeians was strictly upheld. 

However, after five collective secessions of the plebeians from Rome, the establishment of their own tribunes to protect their rights, and the passing of a series of laws over the next two centuries, the plebeians had earned near-equal rights as the patricians. Numerous plebeians rose to join the senatorial class, while some patrician families died out or fell into poverty. Though some patrician family names still held a great reputation like gens Julia of Caesar, this distinction between patricians and plebeians has become a lot less relevant in the Late Republic. It no longer represented the divide between the elites and the masses. For instance, the leader of the conservative faction in the senate during the time of the show, Cato the Younger, was born of plebeian blood, with himself being elected Tribune of the Plebs in a previous year – a position that can only be held by a plebeian. 

Like I stated before, this division between the people and the elites also played out on the political stage. Close to a century ago before the time of Caesar, two brothers of aristocratic background, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus witnessed the long-neglected problems of Rome and determined to fix them. Appealing to the people, they were elected Tribunes of the Plebs and instituted a series of reforms including land redistribution and grain dole. Feared by the aristocrats, they both met their violent end at the hands of the traditionalists of the senate. But their legacy was set: the supporters of these reforms gathered and formed the populares faction in the senate, meaning “for the people”, while the conservatives called themselves the optimates, “the superior ones.” 

Cesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889, depicting a scene in the Roman Senate

And as we know, Caesar, the descendent of one of the most prestigious houses of Rome, chose to align with the will of the people like the Gracchi brothers before him. With the backing of the First Triumvirate and the support of the people, Caesar quickly ascended through the political ladder and was elected consul, the highest office in Rome. After passing a series of populares measures (some illegally) in his one year term as consul, he rode off to his designated provinces of Gaul to begin his grand campaign in gaining himself esteem and wealth. Such one of the populares with boundless ambition and capability was most feared and hated by the optimates faction, thus their foremost target. 

One-man-rule versus the Republic 

We’ve heard the tale. Rome was founded by the great king Romulus. After the reign of seven kings, the last tyrant Tarquinius Superbus was driven out by the heroic Brutus who helped to establish the Roman Republic. Romans were extremely fond of the mos maiorum – way of their ancestors. They loved their republic and its values while detested the idea of a monarch. The Greek historian Polybius calls the Roman Republic the most ideal form of government and attributes it to be the reason behind its success in establishing its Mediterranean-wide empire, subduing Carthage and the Greek states. 

But was it really a democracy? The social elites were in complete control of the Senate and all public offices. The wealthy upper class also had much greater influence in elections, holding the majority portion of voting power than the rest in the public assemblies. On paper, the Senate composed of the elites did not hold any legislative power and was only an advisory body, yet in practice their words were laws. One can argue the Roman Republic was an aristocracy, or viewed negatively, an oligarchy. 

In any case, the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC was clearly plagued by its internal troubles, which include not just wealth disparity and class divide. Rome was not built in a day, neither did it fall in a sudden way. I have briefly examined the case of the Roman Republic in my discussion of the fall of republics here, and we see that the problems had surfaced long before the time of Caesar. All the violence, civil strife, emergence of warlords made apparent that the republican system was failing. 

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, 1836, The Consummation (left) and Destruction (right)

On one end, the Roman people have grown weary of their failing government – though not necessarily the republic itself – and sought for a drastic change. On the other end, the careers of their forerunners Marius and Sulla have demonstrated how easy it was to take dictatorial power for themselves – yet still within the bounds of the Roman constitution. Caesar and Pompey both knew these. The golden throne seemed ever tempting. The question then was, would it be possible to make themselves king…? 

Conclusion 

I think I will end this post right here. Maybe I have successfully persuaded you to give Rome a watch. Roman history is seriously fun and I hope you have enjoyed reading this post. I may write a second part analyzing the characters that appeared in this episode, which will be released in the near future…(?) 

(Link to Part II on characters here)

As always, thanks for reading! Is there anything about the Late Roman Republic you found interesting? And if you have watched the TV series Rome, how did you like it? Feel free to leave a comment down here 🙂 

7 thoughts on “Why HBO’s Rome S1 E1 is the Perfect First Episode (Part I: Themes)”

    1. Great question! And one that I’m nowhere near qualified to answer. Though, it is my hidden wish that my previous posts on the Weimar Republic and this one would inspire the readers to ponder this question – not just America, but our modern democracy in general. How can we avoid repeating failures of the past…?

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  1. I like the review! I only really watched a small snippet of this series (watched it for a college class but I’m definitely thinking of watching the rest of it!) and I have to completely agree with your sentiment towards the opening sequence. I really like how you used the historical accuracies in the show to bring out underappreciated aspects of Roman life. Not to be nitpicky, however, but I was wondering if you had any comments on the inaccuracies of the series (without spoilers of course). Would you say that the liberties the creators made, if any, add or detract from the show itself?

    Also, a little off topic, but I really like what you did with the last picture! Pretty snazzy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think I’m one who often has problems with historical inaccuracies in shows especially on topics that I know and love. I have made my discontent known in a comment for another post before about the TV series The Great for its glaring issues in historical representation. That being said, I’m perfectly fine with the creative liberties they made in Rome. In the post, I’ve pointed out the major differences between the show’s timeline and the historical timeline, and I agree with their choice in using a simplified timeline for a more engaging narrative. I hold the same attitude about the show in general. I think many people have issues with episode 2, probably one they took the most liberties in, but I really enjoyed that episode. I think for all the historically accurate details they presented in the show, they earned their rights to play around a bit.

      (And yes I find that picture to be the best part of this post :P)

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