Television review: Netflix’s Roman Empire

(Commodus, played in the first season of Roman Empire by Aaron Jakubenko.)

A few weeks ago I published a review of a recent theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. And before that I wrote an essay on how Stoics approach entertainment. And here is my commentary on an ongoing television series on the Roman Empire produced by Netflix. What does any of this have to do with practical philosophy, the alleged theme of Figs in Winter? Well, seems to me that how to spend one’s leisure time is most certainly within the domain of practical concerns. And to approach it philosophically just means that you frame the issue in terms of reasoning about the value of your time, arguably the most precious thing you have. So here we go with my first review of a television series.

Roman Empire is produced by Netflix and available on its streaming service. It is an ongoing series, the first season having been released in 2016, the third one just a few weeks ago. The idea is to focus on specific moments of the history of ancient Rome by using a combination of acting and academic commentary. Much of each episode is taken by the unfolding story as interpreted by actors. However, we also get a peppering of short commentaries by a number of leading academics who help putting things in context. It’s an interesting formula, and it works pretty well, overall.

The first season is comprised of six episodes devoted to the reign of Commodus (161-192 CE), Marcus Aurelius’ son. The second season, with five episodes, then jumps back in time, to the end of the Republic and the life of Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE). The third season, with 4 episodes, shifts again to imperial time and the reign of Caligula (12-41 CE). I hope the trend toward making shorter and shorter seasons is not going to continue with the next one, and I am looking forward to a fourth season, since the first three are both enjoyable and instructive.

There are two general features of Roman Empire that I particularly appreciated: the sympathetic approach to the major characters, and the focus on minor characters who may not be familiar to the general public, but in fact played crucial role in the unfolding events, like the Senator and historian Cassius Dio, who lived during and chronicled the reign of Commodus.

Julius Caesar was perhaps the easiest to approach with sympathy. Sure, he was a tyrant who for all effective purposes destroyed the Republic. But he was also a great general and statesman, who was genuinely trying to do good for the Roman people (he was a member of the so-called Populares party, which backed long due land reforms in favor of the general population, as opposed to the Optimates party, which jealously guarded the interests of the entrenched aristocracy). In sharp contrast with the above mentioned tragedy by Shakespeare, it is Caesar, not Brutus, who is the main character here. We see the humble beginnings of his career as a soldier and how he made his way up the ranks by way of his unusual combination of courage and genius. He eventually comes to cross the river Rubicon with his army, thus effectively declaring war on the Senate and his former ally, Pompey. We get a taste of his relationship with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and of course with Mark Anthony, his lieutenant and friend. The last episode focuses on the Ides of March and the assassination of Caesar by a group of conspirators intent in saving the Republic from what by that point was its inevitable destiny: Empire.

The historians commenting on this season do a very good job of putting things in perspective, and also of depicting a nuanced picture of both Caesar himself and several other larger-than-life figures that characterized that turbulent time in Roman history. The most clear message we get, I think, is that Caesar — while certainly personally ambitious and determined — really did have what he considered Rome’s interest in mind, and acted in what he saw as the necessary way to pursue such interest. However, the more powerful (and isolated) he became, the more he truly began to think of himself as almost god-like (he claimed direct descent from Venus!), which led him to amass more and more personal power, until the conspiracy against him was almost inevitable. As my friend Spider-Man keeps telling me, with great power comes great responsibility, but not even the greatest figures in history seem to be able to internalize that message in time to avoid catastrophe.

A bit more difficult is to make the viewer consider Commodus in a sympathetic manner. He was, famously, the son of the last “good emperor” (and Stoic practitioner) Marcus Aurelius, and it has been suggested that if someone had to come up with a list of five bad emperors Commodus would certainly make the cut.

But here is where the Netflix series surprised me, in a good way. In the first episode we encounter Commodus as a young man who has grown up away from his father, and who knows nothing of either war or politics. Marcus is often criticized for having chosen his son to succeed him, but as the commentators in Roman Empire make clear, he really had no choice. Marcus was the first emperor in several generations to have a natural son who survived to adulthood, and not putting him in the line of succession would have almost certainly triggered (yet another) civil war. Also, Marcus didn’t have any good reason to suspect that Commodus would eventually turn out to be so bad.

Indeed, the series shows that Commodus’ reign began in a good manner, with the young emperor embracing his responsibility and doing his best (and, initially, succeeding) to usher a new era of prosperity for the Roman people. Things began to go astray when people started to plot against Commodus, chief among them his older sister Lucilla. That episode was followed by yet another spectacular betrayal at the hand of Cleander, one of Commodus’ closest friends and advisors.

We can clearly see throughout the six episodes Commodus’ steady descent into paranoia and his increasingly bizarre actions, including a stint as a gladiator in the area to solid his popularity, though he made sure that he had an unfair advantage on his opponents. In the end, it is his abuse of power that gets him killed, victim of yet another (this time, successful) conspiracy.

The bottom line here is that it is all too easy to condemn historical figures like Commodus as evil, without knowing much either about the context of their actions or the events that led them to who they became by the time they performed those actions. Commodus will definitely never be on anyone’s list of good emperors, but the Netflix series applies a much due corrective to the cartoonish figure that emerges from the film Gladiator (which, I must admit, I did however thoroughly enjoy).

And we finally get to Caligula, the mad emperor. You would think that here there isn’t going to be any discussion, as Caligula has a good claim to being the worst emperor in Roman history. And yet. Even in his case the dramatization and the historical commentary help us put things into a better perspective. Did you know, for instance, that the young Caligula was confined to house arrest for many years (and his family sent into exile or murdered) by the previous emperor, Tiberius, who also happened to be Caligula’s uncle? Try that as an example of early trauma and see how you would recover.

And yet, recover Caligula did, and once again we see him — like Commodus — approaching the role as princeps in a positive manner, attempting to make the best of a difficult situation. In Caligula’s case it is a sudden illness that, likely, began his descent into madness. When he recovered from whatever had struck him, he is a different man, and definitely not for the better. He has affairs with all three of his sisters, desperately wanting a heir to the throne. Oh, and at one point (not shown in the Netflix version) he mocks the Senate by appointing his favorite horse, Incitatus, to that august chamber. Not exactly the best way to make friends in high places. Finally his paranoia and debauchery turn enough people against him that he is dispatched in the usual way.

There are several additional lessons to be gleaned from these stories, other than that the historical reality is far more nuanced and less black and white than popular understanding would have it. At least two of these episodes — Caesar and Caligula — have a lot to do with the struggle between Republican and imperial ideals, that is, about two very different visions of what Rome should be. Without romanticizing the Senate, the Roman Republic was characterized (sometimes more, sometimes less) by a balance of power between the elites and the people, while the empire ushered by Caesar and realized by his nephew Octavian (Augustus, the first emperor) was marked by an increasing imbalance, where the Senate lost relevance.

The problem with empire is that if the ruler is benign and smart (like, again more or less, the “good emperors” were) then things may indeed proceed well. But if he becomes unhinged (Caligula), or cracks under pressure (Commodus), or is simply not a good human being (Tiberius), then millions suffer as a result.

The reason this is still relevant to us today is because we are struggling with similar problems. We experience every day the limits of political bodies like the House of Representatives and the Senate, and we are constantly tempted to give the Res Publica (the “public thing”) to strong men with a populist appeal, in the hope — against all odds and historical precedents — that they will somehow do better. Donald Trump is certainly no Julius Caesar, but the general problem is the same, and we still, as a society, haven’t figured out a good way to solve it.

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