Without further adieu I bring you a...
My fascination with ancient Rome began when I was perhaps four or five. I had a typical little-girl fascination with weddings – mostly because I liked long fancy dresses – and one night when my mother was watching the Roman miniseries “I, Claudius” she brought me to the TV for a wedding scene.
“It doesn’t look like a wedding,” I objected.
“It’s a Roman wedding.”
The Roman bride wore a white dress, but a red veil. With that blood-red veil, I was hooked – how could something as universal as a wedding look so familiar, yet so different? My fascination continued through more movies, more books, more research, and when I was nineteen I ended up writing a novel set in ancient Rome, a book now published under the title Mistress of Rome. Even that didn’t slake my obsession with the period: I’ve got two more books on the burner, both set in first century Rome.
I admit my focus on Roman history is narrow – specifically, the end of the Republic and the early years of the Empire. But I don’t think I’m alone here. More novels have been written about Julius Caesar alone than about all the late Emperors combined. As for Hollywood, almost everything focuses on the early Empire: Charlton Heston’s Ben Hur and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator; HBO’s Rome and BBC’s I, Claudius; Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and Starz’s currently-running blood-and-beefcake series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. We can’t get enough of the early Empire. Why? A few thoughts . . .
1. Trappings. The early Roman Empire has the best accessories of Rome’s history, or indeed any nation’s history. Blood red veils on brides, purple-bordered togas on senators, vast expanses of pillared marble, legionaries in red armor and gladiators in loincloths, laurel wreaths and animal sacrifices and white-veiled priestesses and four-horse chariots screaming around hairpin turns – it’s all just so damn picturesque. The later Empire got more diluted in its cultural flavor as power shifted away from Italy and Christianity took hold, but the early Empire has a unique and unmistakable look to it. It looks great on screen, it looks great on the page, and that’s why novels of ancient Rome are more popular than ever and Spartacus: Blood and Sand was renewed for another season before the first even finished.
2. Violence. With the end of the Republic and a few colorful occasions like the Year of Four Emperors to spice things up, the early Empire corners the market on interesting violent events. The Republic is labeled as too boringly peaceful and democratic to be very interesting. The later Empire might be blood-drenched, but Emperors swap back and forth in such a confusing welter of assassinations and counter-assassinations that you need a flow chart to keep things straight. Early Imperial Rome has just the right balance between glory and chaos to keep us interested. And politics aside, it was the absolute zenith for both wars on the frontiers and blood sports in the gladiatorial arena.
3. Familiarity. So many things in the Roman world are familiar to us, even in the twenty-first century. Private homes had toilets and running water. Public courts revolved around lawyers who represented defendants and gave closing arguments. Married couples wore rings on the fourth finger of the left hand and worked out prenuptial agreements. Women shaved their legs and used birth control; men stayed fit at gyms and rooted for their favorite team at the local arena. From daily baths to no-fault divorce, Rome supplies many features of daily life we know well in modern days. But . . .
4. Shock. Though so many things look familiar in Imperial Rome, we are continually brought up short by the things that are different. We might root for our favorite football teams on Sunday afternoons, but at least Tom Brady and the Patriots get to limp off the field alive after a bad loss – in a Roman arena, they’d have been slaughtered while thousands cheered. Lonely singles in the modern era troll bars in hopes of getting lucky – a Roman bachelor just summoned a slave girl and took care of things without bothering to ask her opinion on the matter. Modern politicians wreck their careers with one ill-considered racist remark – Roman politicians casually ordered the slaughter of thousands of foreigners and patted themselves on the back for civilizing a new province. No matter how well we think we know a past era, something will always shock us in the end. The Early Empire with its stock of larger-than-life personalities is good at that.
5. Respect. Finally, our fascination with Imperial Rome exists because for once, civilization got it right. Imperial Rome was not perfect by any standard, but with a few good Emperors and some luck, they achieved a few centuries of booming economy, architectural beauty, artistic renaissance, and military strength. Sure, it all slid downhill afterwards. But the zenith is still breathtaking to look at, even from historical hindsight.
These are at least some of the reasons for Imperial Rome’s eternal fascination. Sometimes this fascination has very unfortunate results – for example, the direct-to-video genre of B-movies that throw together a few togas, a perverted Emperor, and a lot of naked slave girls and call it historical. But on the good side, we’ve gotten some very fine movies out of Imperial Rome, some wonderful books, some marble buildings that take your breath away even as they crumble, and some lingering cultural effects (June is the best month for weddings! Gladiator sandals are in!)
I’m not sure about gladiator sandals, but I am sure that Imperial Rome will never bore me.
How would you like to win a copy of Mistress of Rome? Well, PTTP has 1 copy up for grabs!
Just leave a comment with your email address to enter. Giveaway is open to US entries only. Only one entry per person. Giveaway ends on April 25th.
Good luck to all and thanks again to Kate Quinn for a fabulously enlightening and intriguing post!