Show Don’t Tell: How Roman Empire Underwhelms

Imagine Game of Thrones and your favorite Ken Burns documentary had a baby.  That baby would definitely be Roman Empire now available for streaming on Netflix.  Not all babies are cute and cuddly, however.  Roman Empire manages to be both entertaining and befuddling at each turn.  

The question I found myself in the first fifteen minutes of this series is: “What is Roman Empire trying to be?”  Within moments it’s clear that it’s not a comedy.  All the seriousness of twelve heart attacks, check.  So then, I felt it must be an historical drama with perhaps an HBO budget.  Could be interesting *strokes beard absentmindedly*, but is that truly what it is?

Marcus Aurelius played by John Bach

Ever the ponderer that I am, recently I was perusing Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The stately gentleman had thoughts on a wide variety of topics, from the Games to ruling an empire. Looking back, this was perhaps a fortuitous endeavor, as whilst browsing Netflix suggested documentaries, one such title caught mine eye. Roman Empire. With a slight amount of joy, I wondered aloud, “Perhaps even Marcus Aurelius is in this one!” 

How Does Roman Empire Disappoint?

Expectations, my good man.  From the introductory narration by Sean Bean himself, and the pure aesthetics of Commodus’ fight in the arena.  It seemed great.  It seemed right.  It seemed to befit the very empire upon which this show depicts.  Then the historians happened.

How do historians ruin a historical drama? By talking, that’s how.  My initial confusion as to what type of show this would be was further compounded when academic fellows started belting out hyperbole about the emperor, his son and all manner of things Roman.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Sex is an intimate thing, yeah.  A conversation between one person and their counterpart.  Imagine for a moment that you’re heavily invested in the moment, giving it your best go.  Then imagine that three white-bread academics are sitting in the corner talking about how well your thrusts are times and how your performance is the best they’ve seen in ages.

Kills the mood.  That’s exactly what these talking heads do to Roman Empire.  Narration is one thing, handled exceptionally by the master of the English language Sean Bean.  Yes, I could mention him all day.  You always be in my heart, Ned.  Think of Sean Bean as the foreplay.  He gets you all warmed up and ready to enjoy the main event.  You get started, everything is peachy, but then it’s those three guys in the corner again.  Your dangling participle droops and it’s all just a crapshoot.

But Wait There Are More Metaphors

Roman Empire is a beautiful woman.  It rolls its hips just so with its vivid cinematography, apt uses of lighting, and incredibly realistic clothing; from battle gear to peasant garb.  She flirts with you, getting your hopes up.  This will be the show that truly captures the Roman Empire.  Nah.  Not even close.

What we find in the first few episodes is a case of identity crisis.  Is this a drama featuring paid actors and actresses, or is this just one elaborate visual representation for our historians and their history books?  What, if any, creative license is being allowed here.  Tons.

How Hyperbole Ruins a Documentary

That’s the thing about ancient history.  So much of it has been lost to time, or simply went through the various propaganda machines, coming out a much different experience than what truly occurred.  While we will never know the truth, it’s clear that the showrunners wanted there to be an outline of events that must be followed.  Such as, we know that it was recorded that Marcus Aurelius led the war against the Germanic tribes for over a decade.  We also know that he spent some amount of time grooming his son, Commodus, to become emperor.  The specifics of each of those are lost to time, sadly, so there are gaps in what could be considered a narrative.

Since many of the finer details of Commodus’ reign or even Julius Caesar’s past are a matter of speculation, Roman Empire leaves all the important conversation down to semi-meaningful facial expressions.  If it is to be implied that Marcus Aurelius does not think his son is worth his soggy marbles, this is conveyed by a long, lingering, disappointing stare.  The director supposed that if Aurelius were to actually chastise his son, we as the audience would wonder what his historical reference is.  

What’s done behind closed doors in this show is almost entirely meaningful eye-rolls and imagery left to interpretation.  These body language gap-fillers are meant to present you with a beautiful world with a serviceable narrative.  In hindsight, it feels more like an amateur play with interruption for narration than a big-budget Netflix documentary.

Impure of Purpose

I really do want to point out that the fight scenes and stray nipples are welcome and appreciated.  They really did take some pages out of Spartacus’ playbook.  The thing about Spartacus was that we knew it was fiction.  It was as real as anything Shakespeare wrote.  Roman Empire passes itself off as a professor with a Ph.D.  Who also fights bears and seduces women with ease.  Hey, AMC, don’t you think that would make a good follow-up act to Breaking Bad?  No? Alright.

Well basically, the show doesn’t know what it is.  A documentary is not the sum of its chapters, but whether is conveyed something meaningful.  Roman Empire does not.