“Rome” vs. “I, Claudius”

For many of us ancient history buffs, the obsession started with “I, Claudius.” This BBC miniseries following the scandalous, sinful, and always scintillating adventures of Rome’s earliest Emperors was the “Spartacus” of its day; the thing that made ancient Rome cool and not just boring classroom crap. I got hooked on “I, Claudius” at the age of eight, clutching a family tree drawn by my mother to explain how all these people were related to each other (that stuck with me; I could draw out the family line of the Julio-Claudians long before I could draw out my own) and loudly protesting every time I was sent out of the room to avoid a scene with incest or murder. Fortunately for the ancient Rome fanatics created by Derek Jacobi & Co, we got another fix in the form of HBO’s too-soon cancelled “Rome.” Another miniseries following the scandalous, sinful, and always scintillating days of the Republic’s end.

So, which one is better? Someone has to look at this logically, and it might as well be me. Let’s break this baby down like the sports analysts do. And my blog for some reason is refusing to do images, so I am not able to paste in lots of pictures of a half-naked Mark Antony and Cleopatra, as would normally be my habit. Sorry!

Both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” starred relatively obscure actors, and turned them into household names. “I, Claudius” featured a host of British character actors in the roles of shy stammering Claudius and his sprawling scheming royal family, most of them relatively unknown except to fans of UK stage and screen. “Rome” cast two minor players in the starring roles of buddy-legionaries Pullo and Vorenus. But “Rome” did have a few modest names like Polly Walker and Ciaran Hinds, so . . .

Edge: “Rome”

“I, Claudius” followed the politics of Rome’s first Imperial dynasty through the eyes of one shy, overeducated, overlooked lad who ended up Emperor because he was smart enough to play dumb while his relatives murdered anyone else in the family who looked like a threat. “Rome” followed the Republic’s downfall through the eyes of two legionaries, cheerful vulgar Pullo and upright honorable Vorenus, who somehow manage to be involved with Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, the young Octavian, and every historical event of note.

Slight edge: “Rome,” if just for having a broader canvas to include both the vulgar swearing plebs as well as the too-good-to-stab-my-own-victims royals.

Both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” abandoned the cheesy sonorous style that abounded in all those terrible fifties sword-and-sandal flicks, and went for the funny bone in a big way. “I, Claudius” offers such howlers as the Empress’s exhortation to a band of gladiators “These games are being degraded by the use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it!” and her tart appraisal of the crippled Claudius “That child should have been exposed to die at birth.” “Rome” comes right back with lines like a jealous beauty’s whispered farewell to Cleopatra, “Die screaming, you pig-spawn trollop” and Pullo upon seeing his best friend in a toga for the first time: “You look like laundry.”

Edge: Even.

“I, Claudius” was shot on a very modest budget and takes place mostly in a soundstage mocked up like a palace. No lavish CGI, no hordes of costumed extras filling up the Colosseum, no teeming streets of Rome. “Rome” pulls out all the stops: the triumphs, the graffiti, the banquets, the palaces, the battlefields, the legionaries, the gladiators . . . it’s a feast for the eyes even with the TV on mute. Pity the bill for all that onscreen luxury ran so high that “Rome” was canceled after two seasons.

Big edge: “Rome”

“Rome” has a sexy, slithery tune backed up against a lot of obscene Roman graffiti–a hint right off the bat that this version of Rome is not the pristine white marble version offered by movies past. “I, Claudius” offers a sexy, slithery tune set to the motions of a live snake as it hisses and undulates over a Roman mosaic. One of the creepiest opening montages of all time.

Edge: “I, Claudius”

I, Claudius Opening credits

Rome Opening credits

“Rome” offers two marvelously contrasted (and seriously hunky) heroes in the towering and humorous Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and the well-bred and honorable Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). But Derek Jacobi’s Claudius is a masterpiece: a boy born with a variety of crippling physical handicaps but gifted with brains and wit. The marvelous Jacobi takes Claudius from insecure boy to all-powerful Emperor, never losing the character behind the gimmicks of the limp, the twitch, the stammer, or the fifty years of age makeup. A masterpiece of acting that launched his career, though McKidd and Stevenson enjoyed similar luck after “Rome.” Stevenson will reprise Pullo in a “Rome” movie, McKidd is McSteamying it up on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Derek Jacobi has entered that pleasant era of a stage-trained British actor’s career where he gets cast as the villain in bad American movies like “Underworld Evolution” and receives a large paycheck in return for a ten minute scene where all he has to do is enunciate.

Edge: “I, Claudius”

Plenty of villains in “Rome,” including the future Emperor Augustus as an eerily self-possessed and mercurial teenager who by the age of fifteen or so has conducted a torture interrogation in the Roman sewers, committed murder, and slept with his sister. But “I, Claudius” offers two scene-stealing villains: Emperor Caligula (John Hurt), who in one arresting sequence dresses up in pink gauze and falsies and performs a dance as the goddess Dawn (see it and believe it on Youtube here) and the charming but scheming soldier Sejanus played by Patrick Stewart back in the days when he still had hair.

Edge: “I, Claudius.”

Both shows serve up winners in this department–two women, both bent on advancing their beloved sons to ultimate power. “Rome’s” Atia (Polly Walker) is lucious, oversexed, corrupt, and entertaining, while “I, Claudius” offers Empress Livia (Sian Phillips), a pristine tart-tongued schemer who plots six or seven relatives into their graves, including her Imperial husband of fifty years.

Edge: “I, Claudius.” Atia redeems herself and becomes more sympathetic as the series advances, but Livia is pure unrepentent baddy from start to finish.

“Rome” is splashy and violent, and doesn’t stint on the gore. People are beheaded, tortured, scourged, killed in battle, killed in streetside knife fights, killed by poisonous soup and poisonous snakes. “I, Claudius” is less liberal with the gore but no less shocking: the scene where Caligula stabs his pregnant sister and tries to eat the unborn baby might cut away at the crucial minute, but still packs a powerful punch, and I routinely fast-forward past the moment when two innocent children are murdered by soldiers off-screen but their cries are all too audible.

Edge: Neither. Both get honorable mentions, and the prize goes to “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” which has more violence than both “Rome” and “I, Claudius” combined. (Read my review of “Spartacus” here)

It wouldn’t be a Roman epic without sex, and neither series stints on full-frontal nudity. The insatiable Atia in “Rome” has enough sex scenes with Mark Antony (James Purefoy–lucky her!) to fill a Cosmo from cover to cover. “I, Claudius” limits the nudity shots to waist-up, but covers all the bases with several orgies, plenty of naked dancers, and one unforgettable scene (true to history) where Claudius’s slutty young wife Messalina challenges Rome’s best courtesan to a contest of who can take the most lovers in one day. (This one is also available on Youtube here)

Edge: Even


“I, Claudius” ran as a multi-part miniseries, and finished strongly (if sadly). “Rome” was canceled at the end of the second season (damn you, HBO), and had to shoehorn what should have been two more seasons into the last two episodes. The result is rushed and unsatisfying, though fans have been appeased by the prospect of a “Rome” movie to tie up loose ends.

Big edge: “I, Claudius”

So in the end, who wins?

I hate to wimp out on you here, but I don’t think tallying the score gives any kind of satisfying answer. In the words of sports blogger Bill Simmons, it’s useless to ask “who was better?” of two great things, because at some point greatness cannot be surpassed, it can only be joined. So I will cop out and say that if you liked “I, Claudius” you will like “Rome,” and if you liked “Rome” you will like “I, Claudius.” Now if HBO will please hurry up and get on that “Rome” movie, because both these fantastic series are done and I need another ancient Rome fix.

The Greatest Love Story Never Told

It’s a real life fairy-tale, a love story to rival all the greats: Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet. It sounds like something conjured up by the Brothers Grimm, but it’s true–genuine historical fact.

Once upon a time, a brilliant but lonely man became Emperor of the known world. His life was filled with travel, work, friends, but never love–until he met a stunning young beauty from Greece. The beauty was poor and low-born, but the Emperor didn’t care. They fell madly in love and became inseparable, traveling the Empire side by side. Their happiness seemed perfect–until one day, the young beauty was found floating in the Nile beside their pleasure boat, drowned. Accident? Murder? Suicide? No one knew, but the Emperor was devastated. He deified his dead lover, immortalizing that beautiful faces in hundreds of marble statues . . . and he never loved again.

Sounds terribly romantic and poignant; just the sort of thing to be memorialized by the sappier sort of Victorian artist and hundreds of bad poets throughout the ages.

The Emperor of this particular love story was Hadrian, one of the greatest rulers who ever held sway over the Roman Empire . . . oh, and by the way, his low-born beauty was a man. Hence the virtually total blackout on their romance, which except for the gender of its principles would have become legend.

I’m writing my third novel about ancient Rome, and this one covers Emperor Hadrian, a complicated intellectual charmer whose twenty-one years of rule covered one of the most dynamic and prosperous periods of Rome’s history. Hadrian is one of the so-called Five Good Emperors and he achieved a great deal, but not nearly so much was written about him by scholars of ancient history than about other Emperors of Rome. His blatant passion for a Greek youth named Antinous made many scholars uncomfortable–the Victorians made a lot of hopeful noises that maybe Antinous was really Hadrian’s long lost son, but that fooled nobody. Easier not to talk about an Emperor who went so off the rails when his boyfriend died that he nearly killed himself.

Homosexuality in ancient Rome was a far more casual thing than it became in later centuries. Bisexuality was the norm rather than the exception among many Roman men; it is noted of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, written at first hand during Hadrian’s reign, that only two of the twelve Emperors discussed were universally heterosexual. Hadrian’s passion for a young man would not have raised a single eyebrow in his own day. What raised a lot of eyebrows was the depth of feeling he held for what should have been a passing fling.

We don’t know much about Antinous, except that he was Greek, low-born, and stunningly handsome. He was a generation younger than Hadrian, but that was hardly unusual, and Hadrian was still a vigorious, good-looking, and athletic man. Antinous must have had some brains besides the beauty, since Hadrian was himself a scholar and a bit of a snob who scorned stupid people. Antinous did share Hadrian’s passion for hunting; the Emperor once risked his life to bring down a lion about to pounce on his lover. The real reason why Antinous drowned in the Nile remains a mystery, but the Emperor’s grief after the fact is unmistakeable: Hadrian, a biographer and scholar who wrote voluminously his whole life, penned just one line in shaky handwriting after his beloved’s death: “He was drowned in the Nile.”

Hadrian went on to make sure no one would ever forget the youth who must have been laughingly dismissed during his life as an Emperor’s boy-toy. Antinous was immortalized in so many statues that he is one of the best-known faces of the Roman era–nearly twenty busts and statues survive from Hadrian’s private villa alone. A city was named in his honor and he was made into a god, his worshippers briefly giving Christianity a run for its money.

Did Antinous love the Emperor as deeply as Hadrian loved him? We don’t know. Maybe he was just a handsome young man putting up with a powerful older lover because he had no choice. But if he’d been a girl instead of a boy, no one would ask the question. The fairy-tale details–Emperor falling in love with young beauty, tragic early death, lifelong devotion–would have swept the story along until it had all the rosy gleam of a romantic legend. The names of the two lovers would be linked in mass pop culture just like the names of Romeo and Juliet, Bella and Edward, Brad and Angelina. There would have been countless bad romantic odes written to their memories; numberless Victorian paintings filled with tasteful nudity and marble columns and pre-Raphaelite symbolism. Verdi would have written an opera called Hadriano with starring roles for an innocent girlish soprano and a powerful manly baritone. A terrible movie would have been made in the fifties starring Victor Mature and Jean Simmons, and another movie would be in the works for 2013 with bigger budget and better CGI, starring Gerard Butler and Scarlett Johansson. But simply because this real-life love affair with all the romantic trimmings happened to star two men, nobody knows about it unless they are ancient history buffs.

Still, the obscurity of Hadrian and Antinous might be ending. As societal attitudes towards homosexuality change, scholarly work on Hadrian no longer shies away from examining his sex life. Anthony Everitt’s splendid Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome devotes whole chapters to the Emperor’s beloved. And anyone who studies the sculpture of the ancient world knows Antinous’s face very well indeed, as busts and portraits and fragments of statues continue to be unearthed.

I think Hadrian would have liked that.

Cosmopolitanus: The Magazine for Roman Vixens Across The Empire

Last month’s Cosmo: Senator’s sexy wife Lepida Pollia spilled all about fashion, ambition, and her outrageous sex life!

On the cover this month: THEA: The Emperor’s Mistress Spills Her Secrets. Tunic by Guccius. Earrings by Tiffanius. To get Thea’s look, try kohl in Smoky Gray, liner in Wood Ash, rouge in Masada Magic, and lip rouge in Sandstone Neutral. Hair: Thea keeps it low-key with sexy waves. Or for the look she made famous, braid hair into a crest with a ribbon (Thea likes silver!) and toss over one shoulder for girl-next-door sexy. So cute!

35 Beauty Evolution: The Empress’s Style Progression
Commoner to queen means pastels and prints to sapphires and silk! Get this look for less than 300 sesterces
44 The Real Story: The Emperor’s Niece Takes Her Vows
Why she chose thirty years of chastity as a Vestal Virgin
56 Sexy vs. Skanky
Statues: totally naked or tastefully draped? You decide!
60 Confessions
Her parents caught her with a trident fighter–the day before her wedding!
62 Guy Confessions
He told her he’s a charioteer–but he’s just a lawyer!
64 Hot Sheet
Trends we’re buzzing about! Are gladiator sandals here to stay?

69 Mistress of Rome
Thea spills to Cosmo about Emperor Domitian, her surprising friendship with his wife, and how she keeps the most powerful man in the world happy. (It’s not what you think!)

74 Not Your Mother’s Stola
New draping techniques put a sexy spin on this old-married-woman classic!
75 10 Steals at the Forum
Bargain-price accessories at the Forum Romanum–cheap and chic!
78 Beautiful British
In honor of our newly-conquered province, everything this season is coming up Celtic–neck torques, spiral brooches, and Brigantian jet, all plundered direct from the front!

86 Wiggin’ Out?
Four wig styles that flatter everyone
88 His Picks
Ambergris: the new perfume guys love
92 Beauty Q&A
Use a bread-paste face mask to tighten and tone!
93 Beauty News
Get that Egyptian cat’s eye liner perfect every time

102 Stud Meter
Arius the Barbarian hits the top! We can’t get enough of this surly-but-sexy gladiator. Meet his friends in . . .
104 Gorgeous Gladiators
Abs to die for–and they do! You’ll flip for these short-lived studs
107 Bad Hair Days Around The Empire
Mustaches and beards from Ireland to Syria. With hair like that, no wonder they couldn’t withstand our legions. Clean-shaven rules–literally!

108 Today’s hottest gladiators – go ahead and fantasize!
Note: Gladiator #2 died in the arena after Cosmo went to press

110 He Slept With A Slave Girl–Does It Count As Cheating?
First of all, don’t sell her to a salt mine
112 Arranged Marriages: Getting It Right
Learn to love the man your parents picked for you
116 Ask Him Anything
Does he have sex with his buddies? If yes, don’t worry . . . unless he’s the one on the bottom
121 100 Sex Tips From Rome’s Most Successful Courtesans
You can’t be seen associating with these women, so we did the research for you. You won’t believe Tip #47!

138 How To Impress the Emperor
With strategies like these, you’ll never be exiled to a desert island!
139 How To Shop For Slaves
Foolproof ways to avoid the troublemakers and bring home the pick of the market every time
142 6 Tips for A Perfect Massage
Win your husband’s heart with these tips from the masseuses at the Baths of Diocletian

150 The Cosmo Health Report
Unwatered wine can wreck your health (and your reputation). Read here!
154 Cosmo Gyno
The new birth control: auyt gum and acacia tips! It works for Egyptian women; now it works for you
155 Your Body
Maximize your trip to the bathhouse with a fifteen minute steam–great for the skin!

161 Race Ready
Our fail-safe guide to the chariot races: the horses, the drivers, and the factions. Impress your man with your racing know-how the next time he takes you to the Circus Maximus!

164 The Naughtiest Thing I’ve Ever Done
A wax plug with a little pig’s blood–my husband never knew I wasn’t a virgin!
166 Ask Atia
Our resident bad-girl columnist spills on barbarians, Vestal Virgins, and world domination Roman-style.

170 Weekend
Lupercalia festival this week! Get in the spirit by donning leather loincloths with your man and running through the city cracking a whip!
172 You and Him
Prep a slave by the bed with a fan for the next time you have sex–you’ll enjoy the cool breeze!
178 Healthy Sexy Strong
Want to look like a lady of leisure? A muscle-free physique is key
181 At Your Place: The Perfect Dinner Party
Impress your guests with stuffed sow’s udders, sea urchins in almond milk, and roast dormice rolled in poppy seeds. Our resident chef shows you how

188 From Nessus–the Emperor’s astrologer reads your stars. He’s never wrong!
A bad month for Scorpio (don’t fall for a sweet-talking legionary!) but a good month for Taurus (a hot new slave might spice up your nights at home!)

He may look good, but Scorpios should pass him up!

192 Girl on girl action!
Don’t miss the new erotic poetry from Sappho

193 Are You Mistress Material?

Mostly A’s: First wife, arranged marriage.

Mostly B’s: Sexy wife, second marriage.

Mostly C’s: Mistress on the side!

Hope you enjoyed this special Roman edition of Cosmopolitanus!