Dashed Hopes: Netflix’s Roman Empire: The Mad Emperor

About a year ago, Francis and I watched the second season of Netflx’s ancient historical docudrama, Roman Empire (reviewed here on Concerning History). On the whole, we were disappointed. Production value was low, and its narrative of Julius Caesar’s rise to power was both sensationalized and oddly understated. Still, I’m never one to forego anything set in the ancient world; I get so little of it these days, and beggars can’t be choosers. In my previous review, I even expressed some hope; I didn’t mind the show’s many flaws if, as I hoped might be the case, it could serve as a platform for telling the stories of lesser known figures from Roman imperial politics. When I saw that Roman Empire’s third season was upon us, then, I dutifully powered up the computer and settled in to watch.

As soon as I saw the subtitle of this third season, however, I knew I was in for disappointment. “The Mad Emperor” could only refer to one of two Roman emperors (especially as the first season, Reign of Blood, had already covered Commodus). As I thought, this season was to portray the reign of Caligula, third emperor of Rome and great-grandson of Augustus (the other option being the fifth emperor, Nero). Fate settled upon me like a shroud; my dreams for a Netflix series telling the stories of Septimius Severus, Diocletian, even Constantine or Justinian, were dashed. Of course this was yet another show trying to capitalize on the well-known, salacious bits of Roman history that have been tread a dozen times over.

Roman Empire’s telling of the story of Caligula is perfectly competent, for what it’s worth. More a tale of madness and intrigue, The Mad Emperor avoids laughably-small scale engagements or inaccurate depictions of Roman warfare. The show goes to admirable lengths to contextualize the young emperor, detailing his upraising at the hands of his father Germanicus in the camps of his legions, his cutthroat apprenticeship under his great-uncle Tiberius, and the challenges facing the Roman state upon his succession. The show may even be said to be sympathetic towards Caligula; rather than some moral failing, his eventual mental break is portrayed as a side effect of an acute fever. I prefer Cambridge Classicist Mary Beard’s take, that Caligula was not mad and was just relentlessly antagonizing the Senate and rejecting its traditional expectations of him, but brain fever works too. Even the planned invasion of Britain is given more appropriate attention than just “He declared war on Neptune and told his soldiers to gather seashells. Insane!”

In the end, Roman Empire: The Mad Emperor is perfectly average. Devoid of the objectionable decisions of prior seasons, it nevertheless holds nothing particularly noteworthy. Most of my feelings about the show admittedly stem from my own unfulfilled expectations, so if you’re also a devotee of the ancient world, I encourage you to give it your own try. Knowing Netflix’s penchant for cancelling shows after their third season, the future may very well be bleak for Roman Empire. If it does end up getting the axe, I don’t think I’ll end up shedding any tears, but if it limps along, you can be assured I’ll be back again, same time next year, hoping beyond hope yet again.

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