WARNING: Whilst I have attempted to be spoiler-free I promise nothing.
It’s rare a TV series about Rome happens without my attention. Being a humble peasant lad we didn’t just have copies of Ovid laying around the house, or Virgil on the shelves. We didn’t sit around the hearth and ready Livy’s histories to each other. We watched the fucking telly. Movies and TV shows were my first introduction to Roman history, before I began to bury my nose bridge-deep into books and texts.
When I found out Sky were making a TV series about my second favourite Roman figure in history I knew this show would be like pizza. Even bad pizza is still pizza, you can enjoy it! I knew any show about this period in history, exploring the life and relationships of Livia Drusilla was going to be worth watching for good or for ill.
Well it is my opinion this show is for good.
The plot is about 2,000 years old so I won’t go into detail. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t, I don’t want to spoil it.
The first couple of episodes are a bit of a slow-burn, telling the story of Livia’s first marriage to Tiberius Claudius Nero, her cousin and a respected patrician, and their exile during the proscriptions (legally mandated murder) and civil war of the second Triumvirate (Three man power-trip) of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later Augustus, but referred to as ‘Gaius’ throughout the show), Marcus Antonius (or Mark Antony if you prefer) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.
I found these episodes compelling but definitely a weak opening act compared to the rest of the series. The generic ‘trauma inspired’ behaviour change in Livia was signposted from the start but still, for me, unwelcome. No doubt Livia did go through trials in her younger life, but they way they are presented gives me two problems.
Firstly, I feel the idea of suffering as ‘character building’ merely fetishes suffering and promote an unhealthy attitude of positivism that ignores the feelings of survivors of tragedies. Secondly, I feel it underplays the emotional traumas experienced by survivors and can make them feel like failures if they don’t turn their tragedy into opportunity like those presented in media.
They had already placed Livia in a position whereby her father had educated her “Like a boy”, she was intelligent, maybe a little naïve, but was otherwise demonstrating every skill able to craft herself into this iron-willed Matron of the Roman state without needing the events that happened to her to have happened.
At the same time that kind of stuff was ever more common back then than it is now, especially at a time of civil upheaval. It’s not gratuitous, or even unbelievable, but it is yet another powerful woman only having been forged in the fire of trauma. Given the other artistic liberties taken for the series could we not use those to do away with this trope for a little bit?
Then we have the presentation of a young Gaius who is a little too cocksure for my liking and needs to get a damn haircut, and I’m saying that as a long-haired man! To me, presentations of Gaius always end up complicated. We have to balance the notion of one of the most powerful men in history with the fact that for his most significant battles he was ‘sick’ in his tent, we was known to be sickly and frail and was, by so many accounts, a bit of a wimp.
Marcus Agrippa being presented as a young mockney with a ‘Guy Ritchie’ like outlook was a little un-Agrippan to me, but honestly…I liked it! If anything my problem was he was nowhere near broad enough, his historical busts present him as a dense chunk of man, although they are also taken later in his life when he may have fattened up a little. We’ll forgive it.
But those interpretations and my problems with them are nitpicking. As I said that opening is the weakest and the show gets better from there.
We’ll skip how the characters are presented for now then. Actors change after the teenage period of the first two episodes and we are post-Actium, dealing with the establishment of the Principate of Rome and the creation of the Emperor Augustus.
A few character niggles aside – For example I have few doubts Marcus Agrippa was a bad mother fucker, but he was also a canny enough politician not to be seen as an upstart, a charming enough man to slip into the upper-echelons of Roman Society with ease and was more than just Augustus’ grunt.
Livia grows, magnificently.
I’m not sure I enjoyed the idea of Tiberius as a creepy weirdo, and as an autistic they seem to be dancing around the idea he was too, but also presenting him as a dangerous person. I don’t like that. It’s different and I get it, but I am a little uncomfortable with it.
Character presentations out of the way I’m going to talk about is my main take away from the series.
Given the title is ‘Domina’ it should come as no surprise that the main theme is power. Now usually Power in Rome is represented by senators and emperors, soldiers and fighters. That’s not really how power works, though, is it? In fact I can’t remember exactly where but as some point someone in the show, I think it’s Piso, talks about how creating a void of power only leads to people filling it.
The women, the poor, the disenfranchised, the enslaved – These are all people in Rome traditionally presented as without ‘power’. Many of the poor, though, had their collegia. Their colleges, like a union, to help them when needed and ensure a good burial when the time comes.
Women like Livia also give as an excellent example of how women wielded their power in Rome. They were grey eminences, behind the scenes they had their husband’s ears, but they also pulled the strings of family friends, ties, bonds and betrothals. This is presented well in Domina, in a manner where we see these common tools of female power crafted into a gladius by Livia, so she can penetrate and fuck her enemies.
If you’ve read my short article on sex and gender (Contains NSFW language), as well as my article about Livia Drusilla, you’ll know that Roman gender was more one of action than genitals. Men penetrated, women submitted. The woman who does not submit, and penetrates, is masculinised.
At one point, after finding out Livia has been left incapable of having children by a miscarriage, Gaius asks his confidante Mycaenas what he should do. Mycaenas’ reply “Nothing. Your wife is the cleverest man in Rome; and the prettiest!” is a remarkable bit of dialogue reflecting this notion of gender fluidity.
But in speaking about the power of women it is hard not to mention the power of men. I have written an article about Augustus’ wife, Livia Drusilla, who I think was a more capable politician than her husband. I have written an article about Augustus’ general, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the man who built himself from very-little into a-hell-of-a-lot through hard work and a lot of capable killing. I consider both of those people to have been more pivotal to the power of Augustus than the supposed Imperator, the conqueror, the Emperor ever was.
This show actually explores that in detail. One of the most striking scenes in the first two episodes is a heavily pregnant Livia being sexy as hell letting Gaius know marrying her will earn him the name he needs to have respect in Rome.
In fact the powerlessness of Gaius, especially compared to his wife and general, seems to be one of the key themes of the show and by the final episodes there seems to be a power struggle between Gaius and Livia that sets up a conflict in a future series. To make things a bit crude, if Roman masculine power is about penetrating and fucking, both Livia and Agrippa show they’ve got more cock and balls than Augustus ever had. It’s a fascinating presentation.
So to anyone wondering why I have written about Livia and Agrippa for We Lack Discipline, but not about Augustus, this is exactly the reason! To me he is the world’s most successful middle-manager. His skill was in having the right people around him and delegating responsibility. It makes him a difficult contradiction for me to parse. This show covers that well.
But it is not just the power of women explored in Domina. Her former slave, the freedwoman Antigone, is an excellent spearhead for representing the underground power of the disenfranchised. Through a network of slave-spies Livia keeps her ears and mind filled with the goings-on around Rome.
As a working-class man, reading Roman history there is always the fantasy that I could be an Agrippa, a trusted general working his way up the ranks from obscurity to having one hand on the seat of power.
Of course the reality is I would have been lucky to strike a living as a Roman peasant, more likely than not I’d have been a slave.
It makes it hard to ‘own’ Roman history, a history which includes the occupation, and eventual abandonment, of the country of my birth.
Yet Domina presents an image of slaves not in passivity and obedience, but with their own power, their own networks of their power, their own arrangements. A bit like the later Cosa Nostra of Sicily – the establishment of your own networks of power is an inevitable consequence of removal of agency. There are characters in Tycho and Antigone who I can relate to. Whose motivations and actions I can understand, and they have a network of enslaved people who they use, sometimes abuse, but such is the nature of power in Rome.
The power structures mimic each other. The Patrician men commit atrocities in the name of their righteousness. The women play games that lead to affairs, starts and ends of careers and the starts and ends of lives. The enslaved people have their own power games, lives get ruined and changed to suit their ends.
It is here where I think the series is most clever and well presented. Yes, it presents the same story of the same few powerful people, but it frames it through lenses not before seen and as someone who admires Livia’s political mind and ability a lot more than Augustus’ and see her as the true founder and initial maintainer of the Roman Principate, it is a different way of looking at it.
Robert Graves ‘I, Claudius’ and the BBC TV adaptation of it present her as similarly powerful, but she is a shady schemer behind the scenes. In ‘Domina’ she takes centre-stage, and is presented as a leader of events, not a puller-of-strings behind the scenes. She is a Domina, a strategist not a schemer.
What’s more her motivations for this manipulation of power are multi-faceted, a combination of personal advantage, love and a Romanitas deeply implanted by her Republican father. Especially once Kasia Smutniak takes over the duty of ‘grown up’ Livia this is acted magnificently. It must be hard to act ‘Roman’ such was their stoicism, their poker-facing, the public-political act.
In many presentations Livia is the stiff-upper lipped schemer behind the scenes and the ‘woman’ in public. In ‘Domina’, however, she is the stiff-upper lipper Roman Matrona in public and only in private is she permitted to express her feelings, change her face, cry, quiver, furrow her brow. She is power incarnate in public and only in private is she allowed to be human.
The men fly off the handle all the time, public or private. But early on her father teaches Livia a valuable lesson. Never lose your temper. Throughout the series I cannot think of a time when she does. She can be emotional, she can be cold, she can be hot, she can be fiery, but in her decisions and actions she is always cold and calculating. She knows what she does and why. Sometimes she does it with a view to something greater, sometimes she acts merely in the moment to survive.
I rarely expect anything good from a TV series. Indeed, I’m a watcher of things waaay past the point of hype. I haven’t even finished ‘Breaking Bad’ yet, for crying out loud. At least I was spared the misery of the investing heavily in ‘Game of Thrones’ only to be disappointed by the finale.
The fact is, whatever you want to call it, a respect, an admiration for this 1st century woman playing by 21st century rules, the fact that if you study the history, the family trees, she is the one who has a hand in all the Julio-Claudian line, and either through accident or manipulation had that massive responsibility.
And let’s be honest, as a heterosexual man there is, always, the potential I just have a habit of crushing on intelligent, powerful women! I can’t rule out a historical crush for Livia Drusilla colouring my opinions here. I would be being dishonest if I did not suggest this. This series does not merely objectify Livia but she is presented as overtly sexy, and someone who uses that sexiness to get what she wants. Livia is damn sexy!
The fact is I’d love nothing more than to find things to complain about. Kicking mass media in the arse is kind of a thing I like to do. But this is possibly the closest to my imagination Livia has been presented and…I enjoyed the show!
Again, to pick some nits, the first couple of episodes with all the characters in their Teenage Dirtbag phase is a little…off…
But past that, I was gripped. There are likely anachronisms and mistakes aplenty but I didn’t notice them. I was just busy enjoying the show, and at the end of the day that’s kind of what telly is all about.
So, I’d recommend it if you have the chance to watch it. It’s a very easy-to-watch and accessible. I suspect there will be a community that has problems with it. Misogynists particularly!
I also can’t speak about the representation of minorities. To me it seemed they made an effort to include some of the multi-racial, multi-ethnic qualities that Rome would have had, however it did still feel very ‘white’. I’d be interested to read someone’s take on the presentation of race in the show.
But it’s a good show. You can’t say fairer than that! Give it a go, I’d be interested to hear your ideas so leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter to tell me whether you agree/disagree.
‘Domina’ is available to watch in the UK via Sky Atlantic.Follow @wldiscipline
Want to read more about Romans? We’ve got a little for you.
The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia (Some might argue I did it better…), the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.
A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.
Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.
What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)
Only just getting started with Rome, why not read our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series?
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before
The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med 20th century BCE – ~3rd century BCE