The history of Rome has always been a rich source of instruction, example, and warning. Rome once was a republic, a model of representative government and the rule of law, until the rise to power of Julius Caesar. Patriotic senators assassinated him, but then rival strongmen and civil war tore Rome apart. When the dust settled, Caesar's nephew Octavius was left standing, turning himself into the divinized emperor Caesar Augustus and turning Rome into an empire.
Shakespeare turned the historical details into great art in Julius Caesar and its strangely neglected sequel Antony and Cleopatra. Now ABC is taking on the subject in Empire, a five-part miniseries (Tuesdays, 9:00 p.m. ET, June 28-July 26) that is a total rewrite of history.
In Empire, Julius Caesar is a socialist who wants to redistribute Rome's land and wealth to the people. The evil capitalistic members of the Senate assassinate him before he can implement the new law. His young nephew Octavius leads the people in rising up against the corrupt system. This, of course, is the Hollywood left's version of political virtue, but-while it unwittingly illustrates how socialists favor dictators and oppose freedom-it has nothing to do with Roman history. Shakespeare too, being a monarchist, was pro-Caesar, but he recognized the Republican virtues, hailing Brutus as the "noblest Roman of them all."
Empire replaces history with Hollywood clichés: The main character is a gladiator. Caesar is killed because his gladiator bodyguard was lured away, and the gladiator's heroics make Octavius emperor. The writers also work in a vestal-virgin-in-love subplot and a sexual orgy.
Strangely, the writers ignore the real story of Octavius' victory over Antony, which would seem to be made for Hollywood. The truth is stranger, more interesting, and more entertaining than this fiction. That the fiction pretends to be truth is the most unkindest cut of all.