PBS series puts ancient Rome in new light

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If nothing else, the success of the film "Gladiator" reminds us that Rome, and particularly Roman soldiers, still exerts a strong hold on the popular imagination.

But Rome, say the producers of a new series on the ancient empire, has been interpreted for much of the 20th-century through the lens of fascism.

Modern historians have begun to point out that this warlike perspective is far too simplistic a view about a power that once ruled much of the world for nearly a millennium.

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Every generation reinterprets history, and we need to look at Rome from a new point of view, says series co-executive producer Margaret Koval.

Following the 20th-century dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini, ancient Rome was reinterpreted in a militaristic way, she points out. Now, ancient Rome is ready to be re-understood through the eyes of a generation not convulsed by war.

The latest installment in the PBS "Empire" series, The Roman Empire in the First Century (July 18 and 25, 8-10 p.m., check local listings), looks behind the militaristic armor with which the reputation of Rome has been clad to reveal a far more complex, culturally diverse, and sophisticated empire, not unlike the superpowers of modern times.

The miniseries focuses on the height of Roman power. At its core, the Roman Empire was a contradiction, Ms. Koval says. On the one hand, it was violent and oppressive. On the other, she says, it produced great art, such as the love poetry of Ovid and Virgil.

Divided into four hour-long installments over two nights, the miniseries uses historical re-creations, architectural details, and works of art to evoke a sense of the past without being overly literal.

The series tries to emphasize a less familiar side of the Roman Empire, Koval says, which was important in order to show how broad a cultural net the empire cast.

By the standards of its day, Rome was very inclusive, she says. Contrary to popular misconceptions of the Roman style of government, it was adaptable to other cultures and attempted to absorb cultures just as often as it dominated them.

The Roman Empire must have done something right, she says, to rule for so long. It not only welcomed new social and cultural influences, it made citizens out of some of those it conquered, as well as slaves.

Co-executive producer Lyn Goldfarb says her team wanted to get a sense of the real people in a conscious attempt to counter popular images of ancient Rome.

The first installment begins with "Order from Chaos," a narrative structured around the rise and fall of Caesar Augustus. This particularly violent leader embodied the essence of the Roman Empire through his simultaneous capacity for both brutality and compassion, the producers say. In this episode, some of the most famous names from the classical era march across this stage - among them Ovid, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony.

The second episode, "Years of Trial," examines the rise of one of the most notorious figures of the ancient world, Caligula, contrasted with the appearance of Jesus.

"Winds of Change," unveils the reigns of Claudius and Nero, two of Rome's most vaunted and reviled leaders. "Years of Eruption" traces the empire through its trials of the non-manmade sort as Mount Vesuvius erupts, burying the city of Pompeii and thousands of its people beneath ash and mud.

It doesn't take much effort to see the parallels between the struggles of the ancient Roman empire and today, Koval says. She hopes the series will make clear the importance of ancient Rome, even after two millennia.

Rome is a mirror with which we view ourselves, Koval say. It includes all the extremes - the violence, the love, the passion, and the beauty.

Two thousand years later, its voices still speak to us loud and clear.

Write to gcgoodale@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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