Who mourns the Roman Republic?

I’ve been watching some of the TV series ‘Rome’ and quite enjoying it, despite all the rude comments it’s gathered. Nothing in it quite lives up to the promise of the title sequence, with the ingenious animated graffiti, but overall it manages to avoid the worst problems: that of reminding you too much of ‘Up Pompeii’. I’ll say at once that I’m not enough of a classicist to say if there are any howling errors on the culture/material side. I think it does show some bravery at least in being prepared to show ‘good’ characters (Vorenus, Caesar) as exploiting slaves and hitting women and thus showing they’re no more enlightened than the rest of the age. (I always find it irritating in historical novels when characters have very distinctively twentieth-first century views on race, sexual equality etc).

There was a scathing review by the classicist Robin Lane Fox (http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1606415,00.html), although as the historical advisor to the recent film ‘Alexander’, (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayreview/story/0,,1353955,00.html on how he rode with the cavalry charges in the film) he’s possibly now in a weaker position to complain about onscreen inaccuracies. His main complaint was the correct one that you don’t really get any sense about the politics of the conflict. That got me wondering if it was realistic to expect to be able to do this. For a start, you would have to go back a lot further in time to get a clear understanding: the First Triumvirate, which I’ve seen suggested as the start of the civil war, was ten years before Caesar crossing the Rubicon. (Colleen McCullough’s long series of books on Rome goes even further back, to Marius and Sulla 50 years earlier, before getting to Caesar in about book 4). But I think there’s a more fundamental problem about the politics: how would you get people now to care about the fall of the Roman Republic?

The Roman Republic had a lot of emotional resonance until relatively recently: in the eighteenth century it was still seen as far preferable to the ‘demagoguery’ of Athens. Now though, I think Athenian democracy (despite all its flaws) has far more prestige than Roman government. More recent studies on the Republic have also shown how undemocratic it was, and how much it was a matter of patronage and faction more than ideology. For a modern audience, it’s therefore hard to see that the suppression of an oligarchy in favour of a monarchy is really so terrible. Trying to explain why Caesar’s actions so appalled someone like Cato is rather like trying to explain to a modern secular world why the Monophysite controversy mattered so much in early medieval Byzantium. The most you could do is show why it mattered to them, and even that is hard to do in a TV drama (not a good medium for the discussion of complex ideas).

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