Thursday, November 15, 2007

Imperium: Augustus

I finally got to see the 2003 Italian mini-series Imperium: Augustus, also known as Augustus: The First Emperor (I have a suspicion that this was meant to be a series of films about different emperors, but never got beyond the first). I didn't really come to it with any expectations. But actually, it's rather good.

There are annoying bits, of course. I could do without Cleopatra's bikini bottoms, which make her look just a bit too much like a porn star. Augustus' narration of his past by slipping into lengthy anecdotes at the end of arguments is clumsy, and makes you think everyone around him must have thought he was really, really boring. And my jaw bounced off the floor when I realized that the incredibly camp individual introduced midway through the first episode is meant to be Augustus' literary-minded friend Maecenas.

There's some whiting of people out of existence. Maecenas disappears after the conquest of Egypt, with no hint that he continued as Augustus' helper for a number of years yet. Gone are Cleopatra's son by Caesar, Octavia's children, Livia's second son Drusus and his sons Germanicus and Claudius, and Julia's daughter Agrippina, and the son with whom she was pregnant when she learnt that her husband Agrippa was dead. Agrippina's absence is particularly curious, as the series ends with Livia ensuring that Tiberius will reign after Augustus, and Augustus saying that 'Your son's blood will run in future emperors, not mine'. Yet by making Tiberius adopt his nephew Germanicus, who was Agrippina's husband, he actually set it up so that his blood would run in future emperors, after a couple of generations (as indeed happened).

But there are so many good bit. Nice little architectural touches, like the ships prows on the rostra, or being able to work out from the shape of the altar that a building is the temple of the Divine Julius before the dialogue tells you. The series remembers that Octavius insisted on being called 'Caesar' after his adoption. It finds space for calling the Senate 'conscript fathers', the reading of Antony's will, declaring war on Cleopatra rather than Antony.

Augustus' life is not easy to dramatize. Much of it is a tale of political reform. Most treatments of him either end with Cleopatra's death (Cleopatra, Rome), or pick up with the dynastic scandals of his later life (I Claudius). Imperium puts both together, running the story of Octavius' rise to power in parallel with the events leading to the Julia scandal. They do succeed in creating a coherent narrative.

Of course, the shadow of I Claudius hangs over this series, but it makes that work for it. Charlotte Rampling's Livia is presented in such a way as to play with perceptions raised by Sian Philips' Livia. The audience expects her to murder everyone between Tiberius and the throne, and the first episode ends with her apparently poisoning Julia's children - but she actually doesn't do it. Though she considers leaving Augustus to be assassinated, in the end she can't do it.

And then there's Peter O'Toole's Augustus. He doesn't get something as meaty as 'Is there anyone in Rome who has not slept with my daughter!', but where Brian Blessed's Augustus was losing his touch, and manipulated by his wife. O'Toole's is a relatively kindly man, but nevertheless, still in control, and aware that sometimes he has to do unpleasant things. I suspect the real Augustus had a touch more of the ruthlessness of Roddy McDowell's Octavian in Cleopatra, but this is one of the most complex portrayals of Augustus that I've seen. It helps that this is a European production, and so, unlike many American films and shows, is able to view the Roman empire as something positive that deserves saving, rather than an inherently corrupt oppressor.

So it's a surprise when the very last line of the film is 'In the twenty-third year of my reign, in the province of Judaea, Jesus of Nazareth was born'. This is exactly the sort of reference to the coming of Christianity that Quo Vadis and Spartacus have. There, it's meant to show that Christianity will sweep aside the corruption of the Roman empire, and make the world good again. What it's doing here I'm really not sure.


Edward Lacey said...

To be fair, isn't Maecenas' effeminacy in line with some ancient descriptions of him (Velleius 2.88, Seneca Ep. 114)?

CariadBach said...

"...Italian mini-series Imperium: Augustus"

"So it's a surprise when the very last line of the film is 'In the twenty-third year of my reign, in the province of Judaea, Jesus of Nazareth was born'. [...]What it's doing here I'm really not sure."

Could it be something as simple as the influence of being made in a Catholic country?

Anonymous said...

At Tony's request, I'm pasting here a comment about this post made in another forum:

Absolutely - a very fair review. Imperium can't quite count as top-quality television, mainly because of its awkward dialogue (and some second-rate performances, too - e.g. Julia). But it is definitely my favourite screen portrayal of Augustus, and has radically changed the content of my 'Augustus on film' lectures which I give at the end of courses on him.

I suspect the stuff about Jesus at the end is designed to put Augustus' actions in tragic context. He's sacrificed everything for his 'mission' of rule, only to see his two grandsons die young anyway, bringing all his plans to naught. The reference to Jesus is I think meant to indicate that mortal plans are always flawed - audiences are supposed to understand that Augustus was deluded when he thought he was changing the world for the better, and should have realised that only God can do that. A perspective with which, of course, I personally violently disagree - but that is what I think the film-makers were trying to do.

And I suspect that's partly why they wrote out Agrippina, too (well, that and simplicity, of course). Augustus needs to have failed; to realise that ultimately he made the wrong choice in the debate between duty and personal happiness which has run throughout the story. Having him finally realise that he has not actually achieved his goal of founding a dynasty carried on by his direct bloodline is another part of that.

Oh, and there is at least an Imperium: Nero, too, though I haven't seen it.

Tony Keen said...

Edward: You may have a point about Maecenas, but it was still a jaw-dropping moment.


and some second-rate performances, too - e.g. Julia

Yes, like Thunderball, there are too many badly-dubbed Italians!

Interesting thoughts about the mention of Jesus. It wouldn't be done in a US or UK production, where secularization of society, or at least those parts of society that watch this sort of television, makes such a message unpalatable. But as cariadbach says, this was produced in a Catholic country.

This and I Claudius aside, are there any screen portrayals of the mature Augustus, as opposed to Octavian? I can't think of any, or find any through an IMDb search. As I say, a touch more ruthlessness wouldn't go amiss, but at least this version of Augustus isn't the hen-pecked old man that Blessed has rather established in public opinion. The thing about Blessed is that one at times wonders quite how such a chump managed to get to be in charge of the empire - he never seems to win his dispute with Livia.

Thanks for the information about Imperium: Nero. The IMDb entry talks about "A six-episode mini-series covering five centuries of the Roman Empire", so presumably there are meant to be another four two-part movies, though it may be that they just never got made (or haven't yet).

Nathaniel said...

Perhaps the reference to Jesus wasn't meant so stridently, but to reflect the transitory nature of power and fame, God or no God? Augustus would get to have his name remembered (and, indeed, read out year after year) among a fairly significant population, even to our present day, but would be in someone else's story.