Domina Reviewed: A Nuanced Portrayal of the Power of Women in Ancient Rome

Do you ever get the spooky feeling that the world at large is reacting to your personal choices? Not too long ago I finished reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome for the first time, and no sooner had I put the book down than it came to my attention that a brand new Nero exhibition was opening at the British Museum and a new TV drama centered on the life of Livia Drusilla was being released. I know the universe isn’t actually stalking me Truman Show style, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Both the exhibition and the TV show relate to important takeaways I had from Mary Beard’s book: that Ancient Roman history is far from set in stone and we should check our assumptions about it.

The popular image of Nero is one of a decadent, greedy, matricidal tyrant. We all know him as the bloke that “fiddled while Rome burned”. Whenever I acted like a spoiled brat as a teenager, my dad would call me Nero. He’s practically a byword for hedonism. Even if you’re not familiar with Roman history, you know what it means when his name gets invoked. But as Beard writes in her book, it’s just as likely that Nero was a victim of propaganda from the Flavian dynasty that succeeded him. This is best illustrated by the following quote on page 404:

“Besides, in the 20 years after Nero’s death in 68 CE at least three false Neros, complete with lyre, appeared in the eastern parts of the empire, making a bid for power by claiming to be the emperor himself, still alive despite the reports of his suicide. They were all quickly eliminated, but the deception suggests that in some areas of the Roman world Nero was fondly remembered: no one seeks power by pretending to be an emperor universally hated.”

The Nero exhibition at the British Museum promises to show a different side to the emperor and present a more nuanced overview of his life. I’m hoping that I can go and see it. The exhibition ends on October 24th and I move to London on September 15th, so assuming I’m fully vaxxed and not bogged down by my new obligations, I’m gonna do my best to make my way over there. If everything works out, I might do a little blog post about my visit.

I have been able to check out the TV show I mentioned though. The Italian-British series, Domina, was produced by Sky Atlantic and recently broadcast here in the United Kingdom. Much like the Nero exhibit, the series is on a mission to portray one of Ancient Rome’s most iconic figures with a fresh perspective. When we think of Livia Drusilla, we think of the cunning manipulator that poisons her political enemies as she schemes to ensure her son Tiberius succeeds Augustus as emperor of Rome. Just like the hedonistic tyrant, she’s become an archetype in our popular culture. This is in no small part due to Siân Phillips, who famously portrayed her in I, Claudius (which, for my money, is easily the greatest British TV series of all time). Initially, Phillips struggled to play the part as she opted for a sympathetic portrayal that justified Livia’s machinations. The director, Herbert Wise, then told her to be evil, to play her as a pure villain, and the result ended up being one of the most terrifying performances in television history. Without it, we wouldn’t have had Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, Livia Soprano in The Sopranos, or Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

The archetype of a cold-hearted woman that uses lies, sex, and poison to destroy the lives of men has its roots in the patriarchal mores of Ancient Rome. The Romans had a very clear idea of what a woman should be: chaste, nurturing, and submissive. The image of a woman that transgressed these virtues was often invoked to both scare and titillate. A common way to slander or discredit a Roman politician was to suggest that he couldn’t control his wife- or worse, that his wife controlled him. The enduring appetite for this archetype shows that our own attitudes toward gender roles haven’t changed as much as we might think. The idea of a woman- particularly a mother- that’s not sweet, supportive, and nurturing, is still shocking to modern audiences.

Whether the real Livia Drusilla was a power-hungry serial killer is impossible to know. I’ll admit the trail of convenient dead bodies in her wake is pretty sus. But what we do know is that she was certainly an influential and powerful figure of her time, being granted special legal privileges based on the office of tribune (pages 377-378 of SPQR). These were powers based on those of a male public official. In SPQR, Beard laments that Livia actually wrote an autobiography which has since been lost to history. What an enormous loss to our culture that is. I’m still holding out hope that there’s at least a partial copy that’s buried out there somewhere. Aside from the fact it would have given us a unique insight into a woman who wielded an unprecedented amount of power within the confines of the pater familias model, you have to remember that Livia survived well into her late eighties. That’s a damn good age today, let alone in an era when the sanest treatment for epilepsy was judged to be eating a dried camel brain soaked in vinegar. Throughout her long life, Livia witnessed so much change. Three civil wars and a complete restructuring of Roman society. And she was at the heart of it all as Romana Princeps.

Given just how patriarchal the fabric of Ancient Roman society was, the idea of telling a Roman narrative from a female point of view is nothing if not challenging. And that’s exactly what got me excited for Domina– its ambitious and original premise. At first, I liked it- but I didn’t love it. I thought it was competently made but didn’t have that special something, that je ne sais quoi. I felt like I was enjoying it mostly because I liked the history it was based on, rather than the show as a piece of art. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly remarkable about the way the story was told, and it seemed to be lacking a sense of edge. Part of this, I think, is the broader focus of the first two episodes. It’s more about events at large rather than the characters, who are in the process of being established. Then, just as we are becoming invested in the characters with Livia’s dramatic marriage to Octavian, the show jumps forward in time and everyone is recast. It’s a little disorientating at first, especially as the two actresses playing Livia do so with very different accents. However, once I got used to this change, I became a lot more invested in the show. The focus was tighter, the political intrigue was in full swing, and the conflicting interests of the key characters were firmly established. At that point, the edge was there, and it felt like the show had settled into its own identity.

I thought that both the actresses who portrayed Livia did a good job, and overall I felt that it was a nuanced interpretation of Rome’s first empress. Neither of them are trying to be Siân Phillips. In this version, Livia Drusilla is not a villain. She’s also not really a heroine either. But for the first time we see Ancient Rome through her eyes, and we’re privy to her moments of weakness as well as her moments of brilliance. I got the inspiration to write this post after reading a particularly lazy review in The Spectator in which the author laments that the show isn’t told from a male perspective (you know, like every Roman drama since Titus Andronicus). The author whines that Domina reinvents Livia Drusilla as a “generic, empowered woman”, that there’s too many childbirth scenes, not enough bloody battle sequences, and seems particularly upset by all the positive reviews the show has garnered from critics. The extent of his analysis is “it’s crap”. Aside from the pompous tone and bad writing, the review seems to suggest that merely by focusing on women, the show has some kind of politically correct agenda that’s seeking to rewrite history, which is so laughable it tells you more about the psychology of the author than the TV show itself. This is a right-wing publication after all, so I guess it’s inevitable that paranoid culture wars will be psychotically shoe-horned into everything regardless of context.

What I liked about Domina– mostly after the awkward time jump- was its unique flavor. By focusing only on events that related to Livia as opposed to a broad overview of the time period, it takes on this interesting domestic character that’s imbued with claustrophobia, paranoia, and escalating tension. It’s pure political intrigue. And as a consumer I’d rather it have that distinct focus rather than trying to be everything at once. There’s a thousand unique stories you could tell from this time period. Just as Domina centers around the political machinations of Livia Drusilla, you could easily make a compelling drama that focuses purely on the exploits of Sextus Pompey, on the life of Mark Antony during the Second Triumvirate, or indeed on a completely fictional narrative that simply takes place against the backdrop of the Eternal City or its provinces during the first century BCE. Last year Netflix released the great (albeit not perfect) series called Barbarians, which focused purely on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The possibilities are endless.

As Mary Beard demonstrates time and again by cross-referencing the sources, we should check our assumptions about Ancient Rome- especially the ones we have about the personalities and motivations of its key figures. The charge that Domina is trying to rewrite history falls completely flat, because Roman history is still being written. It’s not set in stone that Livia is this evil, scheming villain. And as I said earlier- the TV show doesn’t present her as a good person. The Spectator review accuses Domina of replacing the traditional image of Livia with one that modern audiences should “admire” and “emulate”, which is particularly strange considering the show maintains that Livia did indeed poison her political rivals. The only thing the series adds to the usual portrayal is her motivation for doing so, which is something the writers are fully entitled to infer, since we know as much about her motivations for her (alleged) actions as we do her bowel movements. It might seem a strange comparison to make, but the approach to her character reminded me a little of the 2019 film Joker. Both The Joker and Livia Drusilla are enduring villains of pop culture. The only difference is that Livia was real. They’re both characters that audiences feel like they know well but have only ever seen through the lens of someone else’s story. Neither Joker nor Domina change their characters’ choices. The only real change is one of perspective. Their mission is simply to offer up nuanced factors for the characters’ decisions. In Domina, Livia doesn’t just start poisoning people because that’s what she does. She agonizes over it, she’s reluctant, she weighs up the risks, and ultimately does so for her own survival- which is more interesting.

What I liked about the series was that Livia was presented as a woman of her time, not as someone with 21st century attitudes that’s being projected into the past. The lazy thing to do would be to have her charging into battle, which is the standard approach for men in marketing with very misguided concepts of “strength of character”. The reason childbirth is so prominent in the series is because it was absolutely central to the lives of Ancient Roman women. Above all else, that was their role in society- to rear healthy children for the Roman state. And it was a role fraught with trauma and danger. It’s no different for Livia; her near-fatal miscarriage is the single most important event in the narrative. Her inability to provide Augustus with a male heir plunges the imperial succession into chaos, which is the crux of the whole show. That’s the juicy meat of the drama right there- the competing factions in the question of succession. That’s the show. As a woman that can no longer bear children, Livia’s status remains in perpetual danger. She knows this- and that’s what forces her hand. It’s what makes the real-life relationship between Augustus and Livia so intriguing. It would have been perfectly normal for Augustus to divorce her and seek a new bride after her miscarriage, but they stayed together until his death in 14 CE. There’s a lot of room for artistic license there. Domina goes down the route of Livia’s worth to Augustus being her intelligence. I liked the scenes where they plotted together behind closed doors. At no point however did I get the idea that the show had some kind of agenda. Livia is presented as smart but far from flawless. She’s not a mastermind that’s pulling all the strings and one step ahead of everyone else. She has plenty of moments of doubt, vulnerability, and fear. In I, Claudius, Livia is presented as cool and in control, because that makes her more menacing as a villain. That wouldn’t work in a story where she’s the protagonist, because there would be no tension. The conflict between her and Marcellus is so effective because the advantage is constantly back and forth. It’s a mark of good storytelling that the show can make me forget the actual history and believe Livia is moments away from being caught in her schemes. I was constantly on edge, even though the history was fresh in my mind after recently finishing both I, Claudius and Mary Beard’s SPQR.

Livia’s interesting because of the way she wields power within the confines of Rome’s strict patriarchal lines. She doesn’t flaunt her power or her talent. She hides her intelligence when it’s wise to do so, and she influences Augustus by making him think that everything is his idea. It’s subtle, and more to the point, believable.

As to where Domina stacks up against other dramas set in Ancient Rome, I guess it depends what you’re looking for. Obviously, it’s nowhere near I, Claudius. You can’t beat perfection. But I’d put it on par with Netflix’s Barbarians and HBO’s Rome. All of them have some really neat historical details that are fun to look out for. Domina feels the most mature and understated, whereas Rome is undoubtedly the most colorful. Barbarians is the most unique, given the outside perspective, frontier setting, and Classical Latin. Each show offers a different type of narrative with a different emphasis, but they’re all worth watching if you’re interested in Ancient Roman history.

That’s it from me today, folks. Let me know in the comments what you thought of Domina, SPQR, the Nero exhibition, or any of the other things I covered in the post. And don’t forget to drop your recommended watching and reading for all things Ancient Rome!

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