Cracks in the Marble: Netflix’s Roman Empire: Master of Rome

by Bryan and Francis

While we are officially historians of the modern era, faithful readers of this blog will know that both of us are part-time Classicists, and so it should come as no surprise that we welcomed a new season of Netflix’s docudrama series Roman Empire (previously thought to be only a miniseries) with open arms. The new season, subtitled Master of Rome, focuses on the life and exploits of the most famous Roman, one of the most famous people, to ever live: Julius Caesar. We must confess, we were both a bit disappointed by this. The decision to focus Roman Empire’s first season, Reign of Blood, on Commodus at least expanded upon a lesser known figure; Julius Caesar is in no need of such a treatment. Indeed, if you’re looking for an excellent dramatic adaptation of Caesar’s rise and fall, HBO’s Rome will scratch that itch all day. Unfortunately, our disappointment with Roman Empire’s second season did not end with its choice of subject matter.

One of the aspects of HBO’s Rome series that makes it so compelling is the attention the show’s producers paid to the material culture of the late Roman Republic. Watching HBO’s Rome makes it seem as if you, the viewer, are actually walking the streets of the city. Master of Rome, however, fails to get basic factual pieces of information about the material culture and military tactics of the late Republic correct. First, Julius Caesar and Rome’s soldiers in this documentary fight using weapons (and tactics) that are a mix of both early-Republic and late-Republic styles of combat. Julius Caesar lived after his uncle, the Roman general Marius, had instituted widespread reform throughout the Roman army. Marius’s changes to the army, in particular the way that legions were recruited, trained, and outfitted, led to a military structure where wealthy and powerful generals had the ability to recruit and maintain their own military formations. Thus, the common legionnaire, loyal to his commander, became a more important player on the battlefield while equites (mounted nobles) and hastatii (javelin-throwing foot soldiers) receded in both tactical and political importance. Master of Rome fails to differentiate between this change.

A more critical failure, however, is related to the docudrama’s failure to remotely model Roman battlefield tactics. Throughout the docudrama, Rome’s soldiers, and Caesar himself, are shown fighting small one-on-one duels in the midst of larger battles. Caesar saves individuals soldiers in melee combat and victory seems to go to the warrior with greater individual skills in close combat. This is completely inaccurate. By the time of the late Republic, Rome’s army was a highly disciplined, trained, and professional fighting force. Soldiers fought in formation and used repeatedly-drilled exercises to cut bloody swaths of conquest across the battlefields of the Mediterranean world. An oft-repeated adage states that the Roman legionnaire was told that “drills were battles without blood and battles were drills with blood.” While probably apocryphal, this phrase cuts to the heart of the matter: Rome’s soldiers were disciplined, fought in coordinated units, and never, ever broke ranks to fight one-on-one duels on a battlefield. The idea that Roman soldiers would leave the formations of their centuries to individually engage enemy combatants is ludicrous and shows a predilection for dramatic, gory fight scenes over an accurate portrayal of Caesar’s life in arms.

Lastly, this docudrama is not the place to find epic, Roman-era battles like the one that opens the epic movie Gladiator. Instead, the battles are portrayed as small actions between Caesar and his enemy who, conveniently, is leading his troops onto the battlefield in the exact same place as Caesar! The battles are sporadic and opaque events in the show, stepping stones to Caesar’s larger story, even though the show gives them a great deal of screen time. This leaves a murky picture of Caesar’s consequential engagements in the minds of the viewer, and, though a decision most likely made for budgetary rather than directorial reasons, leaves the show without a sense of consequence or suspense as Caesar engages Spartacus, Vercingetorix, and finally Pompey on the battlefield.

That larger story, too, is not exactly the most responsible or accurate narrative. From playing up Caesar’s military genius in early campaigns for which he is usually barely remembered as a participant, to portraying him as a reluctant mediator and hero, Master of Rome makes every effort to sensationalize Caesar’s life and portray him in an epic light. More mundane elements, like Caesar’s job as a tax farmer, are never mentioned, but even stranger are the sensational stories that are not included. Nowhere is the tale of Caesar getting captured by pirates; Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul never show his brief excursion to Britain. We watched, incredulous, as the epilogue went to absurd lengths to avoid any mention of Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavian, better known as Augustus.

For all this, we’re certainly not complaining if Netflix wants to keep doing seasons of docudramas on different Roman figures. Some public knowledge exposure is, for the most part, better than none. Given Master of Rome’s pathological avoidance of Octavian, it would seem that he would be the subject of a third season if it happens, but maybe afterwards Roman Empire can return to the potential we originally saw in it. There is certainly a laundry list of great Roman figures that deserve more attention: the Gracchi, Sulla, Vespasian, Diocletian, Constantine; the list goes on. Maybe someday, they can get the treatment they deserve.

11 replies on “Cracks in the Marble: Netflix’s Roman Empire: Master of Rome”

Great review!

…and (argh) how could they even fail to mention “Alea iacta est” when crossing the Rubicon, instead choosing to tell us that “Crossing the Rubicon” is the linguistic legacy it left us…!

One question – the tactics the Netflix doc tells us beat Pompeii at Pharsalus was the ‘pivoting’ reserve troops at the back… as if the fact they pivoted could beat a cavalry charge from both sides (?). Can you help expand on this? They just seemed to leave it hanging, like many other battlefield related elements of the series. 🙁

Great point, Chris! There’s a double explanation for this one.

First, as the stirrup wouldn’t be invented for approximately another millennium (give or take a couple hundred years), Roman cavalry would have been what we consider “light” cavalry. Their main role would have been to take troops in the flank or rear, and would have been most useful in hounding the enemy during a rout. They were not heavy shock cavalry, and would not have been much use charging into the face of a prepared formation (especially since horses will not charge into a solid mass, contrary to what Hollywood has shown us).

Second, enhancing the first explanation in this particular instance, Caesar’s reserve fourth line were instructed to use their throwing javelins as makeshift spears, transforming them into a particularly tough nut to crack for a cavalry charge.

While all these observations in the article and comments are true, and I appreciate the points about the non-representation of Roman army formation fighting, I don’t think they even begin to touch on how wildly and fundamentally inaccurate this horrible show is! The very first episode of “Master of Rome” has Julius Caesar campaigning in Marcus Crassus’ army to quell the Spartacus rebellion!! Caesar was never even present in those campaigns, much less did he as depicted “save the day” by suggesting a tactical offensive in the midst of failure to turn the tide and defeat Spartacus! Also throughout the episode, “Master of Rome” not only fails to describe how there were historically and deliberately two consuls at the head of the Republic in order to check each other, this show in fact explicitly indicates repeatedly that there was only ONE all-powerful Consul, with Caesar, Crassus and Pompey all vying for that single coveted position! Poor co-consul Biblius is never even mentioned… Repeated emphasis is made as to how the Republic was “on the verge of civil war” as these three men maneuvered for Consul which is absolutely untrue – it even showed Pompey’s and Crassus’s armies assemble within Rome during the consular election where Caesar was elected THE Consul. In reality it was highly controversial and illegal at that time for such legionary troops to be anywhere around Rome, much less lining the streets outside the Senate building during an election! This is all farcical – any threat of “civil war” only came about much later, when CO-consul Julius Caesar returned from Gaul with his forces and brought them south across the Rubicon river towards Rome… and all of this fantasy occurring within the very first 45 minute episode.

I mean, if this show had been some sort of overt wild fiction loosely set in this time period I might be more forgiving, but the “Roman Empire: Master of Rome” emphatically tries to pass itself off as an historically-accurate documentary drama, complete with interspersed narrative commentary from contemporary historians and scholars who, judging by their supposed academic titles, should flipping know better than the utter tripe they are blathering on about in their learned British accents.

I agree that the inaccuracies are so wild as to be enraging, but the scholars have little to do with it. If you listen closely to what they say, it has very little to do with the onscreen events. Consider for example he letter Caesar sends to his wife from the servile war – it is cut by a historian saying that Caesar seems to have been devoted to his wife. The context makes it seem like the historian is endorsing the whole tale, but actually his sentence has nothing to do with what we are shown, as it makes no reference to Caesar’s supposed fighting alongside Crassus, his letter or anything that’s been presented. I think you have to be very carefully listen to the scholars and try to forget the editing and the context into which their words are planted. And yes, unbelievably annoying!

A) What’s up with the bearded Pompey? Actor could have at least shaved. Also Crassus needs a haircut. Way way too many bearded Romans, you don’t say this until Hadrian, well over a hundred years afterwards.
B) Caesar walking around as consul in a dark tunic rather than a white purple-striped toga?!
C) The bridge built over the Rhine was a fear in itself, engineering masterpiece.
D) Caesar reports about the Wicker Man, a giant wooden man filled with human sacrifices lit on fire. Zero mention.
E) Caesar’s legions get massacred in Belgium when he’s wintering southwest of the ambush. Could have been an awesome thing to display.
F) Mark Antony’s one notable engagement in the Gallic War’s is in the Siege of Alesia on his horse.
G) No mention of the Aedui who, as collaborators and betrayers should have at least been mentioned once.
H) Brutus fought a naval battle in Northwest Gaul, the guy who kills Caesar! No mention.
I) Where are the lictors?
J) Spotted some late medieval helmets.
K) German cavalry played a huge part in helping Caesar in the Gallic Wars.
Only two episodes in and this is just so cringey. No one should have allowed this to air, it’s practically promoting ignorance of history.

Episode 3
A) Just realized everyone’s wearing chain-necklaces with coins on them? What’s up with that? No evidence for that and not an easy thing for an ancient blacksmith to make.
B) No torques for Celts?!
C) Brutus isn’t even depicted as being part of the Gallic Wars . . .
D) Just realized Labienus isn’t even depicted in spite of his importance, he was the right arm of Caesar in the Gallic Wars and switched to Pompey’s side in the Civil War. Mark Antony occupies the place in this show where Labienus should have been. Just remembered Mark Antony’s crucial veto that initiated the civil war, instead he’s incorrectly as Caesar’s side.
E) Why isn’t Caesar balding? One of the historians they interviewed looked more like Caesar in that respect . . .
F) The crossing of the Rubicon would have been a great time to mention that Sulla sacked Rome in the same fashion, but that would have made it less dramatic, I guess.
H) Caesar wasn’t late enough that he didn’t besiege Brundisium, Pompey set up defense works.
I) No naval blockade?! Would have added to the danger. CGI would have done the trick.
J) No epic siege of Dyrrhachium? It’s the one of the few moments where Pompey looks like he’ll win.
K) Correct me if I’m wrong but Caesar and Pompey do NOT have a secret meeting before Pharsalus.
L) Seeing too much imperial plate-armor.
I don’t think you can hide behind a low-budget, this was just too lazy.

Okay 4th episode:
A) Pompey did not make it off the boat! Did the writers even talk with the historians? Also just remembered Pompey’s major contribution in the East was eradicating piracy, no mention of that.
B) Something a historian said this time: it was NOT normal for brother and sister to marry in Egypt. lol It was normal for the royal family to do so, and only if they couldn’t find a cousin. The BBC show The Ptolemies (1983) does a good job of pointing this out.
C) Keep seeing shots of the Pyramids of Giza juxtaposed with shots in the court at Alexandria, those are a huge distance away from each other. Seems condescending in a way.
D) Caesar was NOT arrested by Egyptian court officials. They wouldn’t dare do something like that at the time. More evidence that the writers didn’t do their homework. Getting the sense that they just listened back at the recordings of the historians being interviewed and the historians were inappropriately being ambiguous; “house arrest” never happened, he was besieged with thousands of his men.
E) No Cleopatra in a carpet? Also, telling that they fictitiously depict Caesar as being rescued by her.
F) They depict the siege in the opposite way that it actually happened, it was Caesar being besieged not the other way around. Also narrator says he has 20,000 men. These writers just straight-up not getting the facts right.
G) No epic Caesar crossing over to the island where the lighthouse is located, holding up his scrolls as he swims. No depiction or mention of the final naval battle (Ptolemy simply drowns), or the poisoning of the wells. Also no trip down the Nile with Cleopatra after the war.
H) A point of contention being made in the documentary is Mark Antony killing women and children in Rome; not sure I ever read about this.
I) Got a problem with the historians now: No mention of Sulla’s use of the office of dictatorship, dictatorship wasn’t thought as “un-Roman” or even anti-Republican. I’m not even sure he was initially given it for 10 years but he simply got it “in perpetua” for life, that was the key part that bothered the senators. Narrator mentions the “rules of the constitution”, not sure there was anything remotely close to anything written down like America’s Constitution.
J) Was Brutus “universally accepted”? Obviously not given the outcome of the assassination. Totally unwarranted comment.
K) Lastly, zero mention in this whole series of the most important element of Caesar’s popularity: he handed out money to the public to win them over.
Starting to get as irritated with the historian’s liberal descriptions of events as the drama-oriented writing. Not the first time I’ve seen this, but still. Some details are actually really cool and readily available to those willing to read primary sources.

Okay last reply, sorry but how did y’all not mention any of this?
A) focus on epilepsy is kind of weird, I think they leaned on HBO’s Rome is why. I’m not even sure it’s guaranteed that he had it.
B) NO mention of Cato the Younger screwing up his own suicide then ripping his guts out. Or any part of the war in Tunisia.
C) Zero mention of Munda, or Caesar’s risking his life in that important battle. To say nothing of the very important reprimand in the Field of Mars back in Rome, when his troops temporarily revolt in lieu of payment and he calls them “citizens” and they feel embarrassed over revolting. Surreal moment not depicted.
D) Journalist interviewed … for commentary about Cleopatra, instead of a historian. …?
E) Writers went out of their way to ignore Octavian.
G) No mention of JuliI connection to Venus, or the Temple to Venus with the golden statue of Cleopatra.
H) There is no epileptic seizure in the Senate house.
I) Historian claims Brutus had emotional conflictions about killing Caesar: no proof of this, pure speculation asserted as fact. Historians have no business doing this, they only get the gonads to do this when they think you haven’t read up yourself. Barry Strauss spoke way too liberally, see this way too much with documentaries about antiquity.
J) What evidence is there that the Senate would have been upset about a Parthian invasion? Alexander the Great was idolized at this time.
K) No Cassius, kind of feel bad for him.
L) Mark Antony being blocked by soldiers from entering the Senate-house (Pompey’s theatre) is ridiculous; only soldiers within the Pomerium at this time were on the island on the Tiber.
M) Just as HBO’s Rome failed to depict Mark Antony’s funeral oration so too does this documentary. No surprise at this point.
So much potential, so much of it squandered out of laziness and ignorance.

Such a shame. I took season 1 as probably being accurate as knew nothing about Commodus other than the vague fictional account in Gladiator…. But I got 10 minutes into season 2 and they are crediting Caesar with defeating or helping to defeat Spartacus and everything I have read before never mentions his involvement in that war in any shape or form. Sadly for me I am now thinking season 1 could have been full of rubbish as well. Turning it off and hoping for better to come along. So sad as would have loved to have seen this done well.

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