In Videos Veritas: ‘Domina’ and the Rise of the Roman Empire

Credit: Moris Puccio/Tiger Aspect/Banijay Rights/MGM+ © 2023 MGMPlus Entertainment/ Sky Atlantic

Welcome to In Videos Veritas, where accuracy and artistic licence fight it out in the coliseum of audience experience. 

The goal of this column is not to lambast a piece of media for failing to deliver perfect ‘historical accuracy’, something that is impossible to define, impossible to achieve, and rarely ever an acknowledged intention of the creators anyway. Nor is it my goal to overly praise works that feel authentic to their period but fall flat in other areas. So, ‘What am I doing?’, you may wonder. To put it simply: it’s interesting to explore how fact and fun interact, with an ultimate focus on what we are willing to include, embellish, or omit from the former in order to attain the latter.

On the Ides of March (what we’d now call the 15th) in 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Senate. His assassination plunged Rome into bloody conflict, after which one victor emerged, the first Roman emperor, Julius Caesar’s sole heir, Augustus Caesar. Inspired by this anniversary, I’m taking a look at Domina, a Sky Atlantic and MGM+ historical drama series about the life of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus Caesar. It currently has two series, spanning over thirty years of actual history, so judicious choice has been made of which events and figures to discuss.

For clarity, I will be referring to Augustus as Gaius, in keeping with the name used in the show itself. 

Livia Drusilla, First Empress of Rome

At the centre of Domina is Livia Drusilla, the first empress of Rome, matriarch of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and one of the most powerful women in Roman history. She occupied a position without precedent, and the path she took to reach it was just as extraordinary, if incredibly turbulent. The series tells her story from her perspective, making it one of the rare pieces of media set in Ancient Rome with a female protagonist.

We are first introduced to a teenage Livia, played with great charm and dignity by Nadia Parkes (and later by Kasia Smutniak). The year is 43 BCE, and Livia is living a comfortable, privileged life as part of the Claudii, one of the five great families of Rome. Her father, a staunch Republican, is marrying Livia to her cousin, Tiberius Nero, another Republican.

Following the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BCE, Rome descends into civil war. The Republican assassins and their supporters are facing opposition from Julius Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son and heir, Gaius, and his supporters Mark Antony and Lepidus. The show depicts the contrasting opulence and violence of Roman society in this period unflinchingly. When the tide starts to turn in Gaius’ favour, Livia is forced to flee Rome with her unpleasant, ineffectual husband and their young son. Domina quickly covers the years of terror and trial that follow, showing Livia and her small family evading threat and violence at every turn. When peace is finally established in 39 BCE, Livia returns to Rome, pregnant with her second son, and is introduced to Gaius. Gaius divorces his wife after she has their daughter, then persuades, or forces, Tiberius Nero to divorce Livia. Livia gave birth to her second son in January 38 BCE, and three days later, Gaius and Livia were married. The show sticks close to this shockingly speedy progression.

Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusilla and Matthew McNulty as Gaius in ‘Domina’ | © 2023 MGMPlus Entertainment/ Sky Atlantic

Domina presents this second marriage as Livia’s first major triumph, giving her a very active role in pursuing and then seducing Gaius (played by Matthew McNulty). She dangles her status as a Claudii, and as a mother of two boys, before him, using everything she has at her disposal with a cool, collected confidence that becomes her trademark. She also befriends Gaius’ right hand man, Agrippa (Ben Batt), a relationship that would secure Livia, Gaius, and Agrippa the status of a ‘covert triumvirate’.

The series gives us Livia the schemer, often two steps ahead and rarely on the back foot, whispering in her husband’s ear, in Agrippa’s ear, as well as in her sons’ ears to get what she wants. The regal Kasia Smutniak plays the older Livia as the definition of soft power, using every method allowed to her in such an extremely patriarchal society where women were the property of their fathers first, their husbands second, and themselves hardly at all. However, the show assures us that what she wants most is the restoration of the Republic, something that it seems impossible for the real Livia to have actually attempted. It’s a strange and unconvincing narrative choice that detracts from the otherwise riveting central plot.

Livia set a pattern that many Roman women would try and follow, namely Antonia Minor and Empress Agrippina the Younger. Scholars at the time, like Cassius Dio and Tacitus, paint Livia as a tricky figure, lambasting her as a “blight on the nation” whilst praising her apparent capabilities and her compliance as a wife. Domina attempts to reconcile these conflicting accounts of Livia Drusilla. Was she the ideal Roman matron, perfect and pious, a good wife and loving mother? Or was she an insufferable, meddling murderess, desperate to get her son on the throne, and killing anyone who stood in her way? Domina seems to say, why can’t she be both?

Agrippa, Professional Right Hand Man

The lifelong friendship between Gaius and Agrippa is a curious tale of incredible loyalty. Friends since childhood, the pair would become the unlikely winners of the Roman civil wars, having used ruthless tactics to achieve a lasting peace. The trust between the pair must’ve been entirely sound. With Gaius at the helm, as the face of the opposition, Agrippa worked busily to ensure his friend’s accession. After all, it was his military prowess that secured the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra. Then, once the wars had been won, Gaius relied on Agrippa to get things in Rome back on track. With a startling, steady efficiency that would make most modern politicians cower, Agrippa turned Rome from a “city of brick to one of marble”, building bathhouses and viaducts, cleansing sewers and repairing roads, and even building the pantheon (although his original burnt down in 80 CE).

Ben Batt as Agrippa and Kasia Smutniak as Livia Drusillai n ‘Domina’ | © 2023 MGMPlus Entertainment/ Sky Atlantic

The only point of contention in both historical records and the series is the favour Gaius awarded to his nephew, Marcellus. Gaius’ lack of a male heir resulted in the kind of tension and speculation that makes excellent telly (as Succession and House of the Dragon have shown). Gaius gave Marcellus the hand of his daughter Julia, in the hopes that they’d produce a boy who he could name as heir. Agrippa seems to have been jealous of Marcellus, flinging himself into self-imposed exile for some time. However, during a period of illness, Gaius turned to Agrippa rather than Marcellus. Domina makes this a deception of Livia’s doing, exploiting her real-life preference for Agrippa over Marcellus. In doing so, the show momentarily loses its focus on the strength of Gaius and Agrippa’s bond, though it reclaims it wholeheartedly by series two.

Marcellus died young from a sudden illness. The show chooses to portray Marcellus (Finn Bennett) as unsuited to leadership, pathetic, and cruel to his spirited wife, Julia (Liah O’Prey). It is Livia who poisons him, worried that he’ll do the same to her and her sons if she leaves him alive. Much of the show then focuses on the consequences of this choice, on Marcellus’ mother’s grief, his sister’s attempts at revenge, Julia’s remarriages, Livia’s attempts to conceal her crime, Agrippa’s tasteless glee, and Gaius’ struggle for a new heir.

The show takes another strange turn in series two, where Agrippa and Livia appear constantly on the verge of having an affair (culminating in a single kiss). It is fascinating to see Agrippa, played with steely conviction and affable warmth by Ben Batt, torn between his best friend and his best friend’s wife. They promise to care for each other’s children, should anything go amiss, and they work together constantly to keep Gaius secure on his throne. Whilst likely a work of complete fiction, their quasi-romantic dynamic is one of the consistent highlights, providing some of the most electric, exciting and genuinely affecting scenes in the show.

The Idea of Rome

Domina brings Rome alive in a way very few pieces of media have managed to do. The world the production team creates is tangible, alive, and very aware of Roman culture and customs. We see the Vestal Virgins at work in their temple, we see the inner workings of the senate, we see rich Romans dining extravagantly in their villas, or at the seaside party resort of Baiae. We see the darker sides of Rome as well: slaves are present in the majority of scenes, women struggle through near-endless births, famine and plague and rampant colonisation abound. It makes for frequently uncomfortable viewing.

A scenic shot from ‘Domina’ | © 2023 MGMPlus Entertainment/ Sky Atlantic

Of course, the authenticity of many aspects is questionable (especially in the costume department). In addition, some of the events invented to fill gaps or spice up a plotline are outlandish almost to the extreme, and much of the timeline has been compressed.

Currently, there is no news about the potential of a third series, though the shock ending of series two calls for one with some force. I hope we get another set of episodes with these characters, as the next generation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty were such a delight to watch in series two, and offer just as much scope for exploration as their elders.

Whilst not a definitive take on the Roman Empire, Domina is my Roman Empire. It is bingeable, raucously good fun, and truly captivating. I’ve lost hours down the rabbit hole of researching the Julii-Claudii family, and Domina ensures that you never get bored of them (or their insane family tree). Should we be given a third series, I’ll be watching it excitedly, ready to be awed once again by Livia Drusilla’s Rome.

In Video Veritas rating

Fact rating: 5/10

Fun rating: 8/10

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Words by Briony Havergill

Some selected sources and recommendations: A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women (Dr Emma Southon, 2023), History is Sexy (podcast, 2018-), Just Late Roman Republic Things (online blog, 2023-), The Ancients (podcast, 2020-), the collected works of Cassius Dio, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder.

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