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Nine BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramas by Mike Walker, chronicling Rome’s greatest rulers.
Drawing on historical sources including Suetonius’ ‘Lives of the Caesars’, Mike Walker’s compelling drama cycle follows the story of the leaders of Rome, from Julius Caesar’s ascension to power to the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West in AD 475.
Meeting at Formiae - Julius Caesar secretly seeks senate leaders Cicero and Cato’s support to shake up the rule of Rome. Stars David Troughton as Caesar, Anton Lesser as Cicero and Stephen Critchlow as Cato.
The Arena - As Julius’ appointed heir, young Octavian uses his legendary political skills to outwit enemies and rule Rome. Starring Adam Levy as Octavian.
Peeling Figs for Julius - His name is now a byword for depravity, but growing up in Tiberius’ court, how evil was Emperor Caligula? Stars David Tennant as Caligula and Neil Dudgeon as Cassius Chaerea.
The Best of Mothers - The murderous tale of Emperor Nero and his interfering mother, Agrippina. Jonathan Forbes stars as Nero, with Frances Barber as Agrippina the Younger.
The Glass Ball Game - The story of Emperor Hadrian and his relationship with Antinous, who died in mysterious circumstances. Starring Jonathan Hyde as Hadrian and Andrew Garfield as Antinous.
Citizens in a Great City - Young Commodus buckles under the expectations put upon him by his father, the philosopher/emperor Marcus Aurelius. And Septimus Severus is called on to save the Empire from anarchy. Jim Sturgess stars as Commodus, with Ronald Pickup as Marcus Aurelius and Ray Fearon as Septimus Severus.
Empress in the West - as the Roman Empire begins to fall apart, Victoria Poppea sees an opportunity to wield the power that her gender has always denied her. Stars Barbara Flynn as Victoria and Sam Troughton as Victorinus.
The Maker of All Things - Constantine and Crispus are father and son - but can this indivisible bond survive politics? Sam Dale stars as Constantine the Great, with Joseph Kloska as Crispus.
Empire Without End - With the Empire in the West under attack from Attila the Hun’s forces, an unlikely coalition of kingmakers selects the last Roman emperor. Starring Tom Hiddleston as Romulus Augustus.
Ce que les auditeurs disent de Caesar!
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- Stefan Filipovits
They came, they saw, they conquered
Caesar! is a BBC anthology series that portrays Roman history at its most pivotal moments. Like any anthology there are some stories that are better than others. From the fall of the Republic, to the rise of the Roman Empire, to the barbarian invasions and collapse of the Western Roman Empire we see Roman history at its bloodiest and most intriguing. While some chapters can be hit or miss, the entire production is top-notch and there isn’t a bad performance in the entire cast. Caesar! is so compelling and captivating that I found it worthwhile to review each story in turn and highlight their respective strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of the moments or chapters that don’t entirely work, I found Caesar! a VERY worthwhile, rewarding, and interesting listen. For those with a deep love of Roman history it’ll entertain and for those new to the Caesar’s and Roman history it might just inspire fascination, wonder, and a love of the past.
“Meeting at the Formiae”:
The opening story has a really interesting premise. It’s basically a “bottle episode” where Cicero, Cato, and Julius Caesar meet at a lakeside villa to discuss the future of Rome. Civil war is in the air, Caesar is ascending, and the conservative Republicans and Optimatès are becoming terrified of his power and political acumen. In the background are the two daughters of Cicero and Caesar who act as a sort of Greek chorus and bring much needed perspective of what it was like to be a woman in Rome at its most pivotal moment. The performances are stellar to a one but Anton Lesser deserves particular praise for his performance as Cicero. It’s a perfect first episode where the stage is set, the stakes are high, and the tension is perpetually rising.
The second story in the Caesar! anthology deals with Octavian as he deals with the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination. As he consolidates his power and hunts down Caesar’s killers, he must also contend with his chief rival Mark Antony. This chapter was one of the drier entries in my opinion. Adam Levy gives an interesting and convincing turn as Octavian but I found Clive Russell’s Mark Antony the more compelling performance here. There was so much potential to show how and why a boy could spend his entire life in the accumulation of power but most of Octavian’s machinations were skipped over and we only got the broad-strokes. However, the Livia subplot and performance deserves particular acclaim.
“Peeling Figs for Julius”:
When it comes to the history of the Caesar’s certain names loom far larger than others. The mad emperors (Caligula, Nero, Elagabalus, Commodus) in particular still captivate us to this day. There’s just something so fascinating about madmen with unlimited power who are utterly unsuited for it (see American politics if you’d like to prove my point). The third chapter and easily one of the more fun deals with Caligula as he grows and struggles to survive in the court of Tiberius. This story tries to show us how monsters aren’t born but made and how absolute power corrupts absolutely. David Tenant stars and makes a pitch-perfect Caligula.
“The Best Of Mothers”:
Nero: the incendiary, the antichrist, the great persecutor. How did Nero become the most infamous Caesar in history? What happened to make him so cruel and depraved? What can drive a man to murder his own mother and wife? Nero and his relationship with his mother Agrippina is one of the most toxic relationships in history and to see it performed by such talented actors is a joy. It’s admittedly salacious but undeniably fascinating.
“The Glass Ball Game”:
While this entry might be the least interesting historically and have the least amount of Roman intrigue, it might be the best as far as character work. The story is about Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous told through the perspective of Suetonius. While lacking the intrigues and salaciousness of previous entries this segment acts more as a character study. Jonathan Hyde gives a standout performance as Hadrian (come back to us Jonathan. We miss you.) as he slowly loses the devotion of his lover/paramour Antonious as portrayed by a young Andrew Garfield. It also gives us some insight into the sexual mores of the time. If you’re one of those people who forgets it’s 2020 and can’t abide stories with gay/lesbian themes then give it a pass or better yet: grow up. The LGBTQ themes are poignant and honest and we get a glimpse of Roman society that we rarely see. It’s a beautiful and fascinating story complete with great performances.
“Citizens In A Great City”:
Marcus Aurelius was one of Rome’s great emperors. He was a philosopher, warrior, and statesman. Needless to say, living up to him would be a daunting task. To see how one of the best emperors could produce one of the worst is so fascinating. In this chapter we see Commodus buckle under the weight of his fathers greatness and succumb to his own worst impulses. Great performances elevate an excellent family drama.
“Empress In The West”:
Where “The Glass Ball Game” gave us an insight into Roman society with LGBTQ themes, “Empress In The West” gives us a story of Rome with feminist themes. Where “Meeting At The Formiae” gave us a taste of what it was like to be a Roman woman “Empress In The West” gives us a feast. We far too often forget the women who built rome. Livia, Servillia, Fulvia, Theodora, and Helena are names that history rightly remembers but are far too often forgotten by fiction or popular culture. Fortunately, in “Empress Of The West” we get the true story of Victoria Poppea who ruled as Emperor and was able to bring stability at a time when Rome was beginning it’s precipitous decline. Victoria isn’t always sympathetic, she’s a mix of Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, but it’s hard not to root for her. This is also one of the more brutal segments. Not because of gory battles or gruesome gladiatorial combat but because the casual misogyny and cruelty of Roman society was truly abhorrent, especially for women. This segment may not be the easiest listen but it is probably one of the more rewarding chapters. In Rome the hurdles to power were even more deadly and daunting to women and to see Victoria rise above and bring stability to an empire at the edge of oblivion makes for fascinating history and great drama.
“The Maker Of All Things”:
I found this segment to be one of the drier and harder to stick with. The performances (like all the preceding and succeeding segments) are stellar and beautifully acted but the story just wasn’t there for me. While Constantine is one of the most influential and famous emperors in history, I never found his life particularly interesting and I’m willing to chalk this weak review up to personal preferences. To see the familial relationships in the imperial houses is a subject fraught with intrigue and danger, love and devotion, and it’s ripe for drama. Unfortunately, this take on Constantine and his son Crispus never quite came together in my opinion. It’s well-written and beautifully performed but the pacing is rather tedious. Still, it’s definitely worth a listen and it’s an interesting look at how politics could unite, divide, or destroy a family.
“Empire Without End”:
Right off the bat I have to mention that we get a stellar performance from a young Tom Hiddleston here. Hiddleston uses his versatile talent to give a nuanced voice to an emperor history has long derided. Where we saw and heard the decline of the Roman Empire piece by piece in the background of previous stories, here we see it’s wholesale destruction and fall as the Hunnic empire invades the West . To be the final Caesar during Romes last gasp offers a chance for so much drama and the writing and performances offer a poignant and tragic end to Caesar!
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Amazing sricpt and out standing performance! Just what I need in quarantine. One of the best on audible.
BEST EVER ❤️
Really really didn’t ever hear anything better. What is important: You have to be sure in your knowledge about the plots. Otherwise it will be difficult to follow.
Please please more of things like this!!