By Peter Hummers on March 5, 2020
Long-form TV can make a feast of historical tales: the mythological downfall of Troy was treated well in Brad Pitt’s 2004 movie, which takes place over a couple of weeks, while Troy: The Fall of a City takes the full ten years, even flashing back some 20-odd years earlier. Similarly, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar picks out the pivotal story from the downfall of Rome, while HBO’s Rome takes 22 episodes to explore almost every facet of the empire back in the day.
TROY: FALL OF A CITY (Netflix)
This 2018 Netflix series opens with the birth of Alexander to Queen Hecuba of Troy in mythological times. Before his birth, his mother dreamed that she gave birth to a flaming torch. This dream was interpreted by the seer Aesacus as a foretelling of the downfall of Troy, and he declared that the child would be the ruin of his homeland. On the day of Alexander’s birth, it was further announced by Aesacus that the child born of a royal Trojan that day would have to be killed to spare the kingdom, as the child would bring about the prophecy. Though Alexander was indeed born before nightfall, he was spared by his father Priam, who prevailed upon his chief herdsman, Agelaus, to remove the child and kill him. When we see Alexander, some 20 years later, he is the young herdsman Paris, who had been spared also by Agelaus and raised as his own son.
One day Paris follows a white wolf into the woods and finds a stranger asking him to select one of three goddesses to whom to present a golden apple, at the behest of the god Zeus, sitting nearby in shadow. “Why would he ask me, a mere herdsman,” Paris asks. “It’s just a game,” he’s told, “…but maybe we have the wrong person,” “No,” says Zeus, from the shadows. “We have the right person.”
As Paris picks up the apple, the messenger says, “No good will come of this,” and Zeus replies, “Quiet, Hermes; you’ve said enough.” Athena and Hera try to talk Paris into choosing them, but Aphrodite says, “You know me from your dreams. Choose me and I’ll give you the most beautiful woman alive.” She gets the apple, the other two goddesses let loose a blinding storm and Hermes cries, “What have you done?” Zeus says, “Enough! The mortal has spoken,” and Paris finds himself alone in the woods. He shouts, “Wait! When do I meet my prize?”
In time Paris meets Helen, who is married to King Menelaus of Sparta, and with whom he falls in love, and spirits her back to Troy. The Spartan expedition to retrieve Helen from Troy is the basis of the series, the spoiler being in the title. It’s a very entertaining and good-looking tale replete with romance, espionage and clever martial tactics, not the least of which being the involvement of the demigod Achilles, and the huge wooden horse apparently left by conciliatory Spartans outside the gates of Troy. Here’s a two-minute trailer. [TVMA]
ROME (Amazon Prime Video, on-demand on several other services)
“Rome is set in the 1st century BC, during Ancient Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire. The series features a sprawling cast of characters, many based on real figures from historical records, but the lead protagonists are ultimately two soldiers named Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who find their lives intertwined with key historical events.
“The first season depicts Julius Caesar’s civil war of 49 BC against the traditionalist conservative faction in the Roman Senate (the Optimates), his rise to dictatorship over Rome, and his fall, spanning the time from the end of his Gallic Wars until his assassination on 15 March 44 BC (the infamous Ides of March). Against the backdrop of these cataclysmic events, we also see the early years of the young Octavian, who is destined to become Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. The second season chronicles the power struggle between Octavian and Mark Antony following Caesar’s assassination, spanning the period from Caesar’s death in 44 BC to the suicide of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C. after their defeat at the Battle of Actium” (Wikipedia).
Lucius’ and Titus’ stories are central, and they deal with life as soldiers during the great upheaval. Lucius is a staunch, traditional Roman officer who struggles to balance his personal beliefs, his duty to his superiors, and the needs of his family and friends, while Titus is an insubordinate but friendly, upbeat, devil-may-care soldier with the morals of a pirate. Much of the action is seen through their eyes: Caesar sends them, with the Ubian cavalry, to scout out former ally Pompeii’s defenses, and as the series progresses, Titus is assigned to execute Cicero, and Vorenus, guarding young Octavian and bonding with him, nevertheless believes Caesar’s military coup is a “terrible sacrilege,” but Caesar responds that he is only seeking his legitimate right. The gang’s all here, including Mark Antony’s squeeze, young queen Cleopatra of Egypt.
Conflict is the mother’s milk to drama and there’s no end of it in Rome. Here’s an HBO trailer. [TVMA]
(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)