Sky Atlantic’s new series Domina (2021) tells the story of legendary Roman empress Livia Drusilla and Rome’s power politics. She’s a figure who’s been on screen before, most notably played by Siân Philipps in I, Claudius. But that (and most) portrayal shows Livia as an older woman, while this one starts when Livia is only 15.
Now, the last time I tried to review an ancient period film, admitting my lack of knowledge about ancient dress and basically not analyzing the historical accuracy of the costumes, some people got VERY cranky. So I’ve asked a friend who knows the period to review Domina‘s costumes specifically, and we’ll publish that review sometime in the next month. Given that they were designed by Gabriella Pescucci, they’re very pretty! So, hold on to any twisted knickers, because here we’re just going to talk plot/character/casting!
Overall, I give the series a solid B grade for being entertaining, minus some really weird casting decisions. Usually, “weird casting decisions” means “actors who don’t suit the role.” That’s not the problem here. The problem is that they do three or four episodes with one set of actors playing the “young” version of the characters, then midway through this season, swap everyone out for the significantly “older” version by using a totally new cast. The problem is that then I spent the entire second half of the series going “Really? That’s supposed to look like an older version of X??” and/or “WHO THE FUCK IS THAT SUPPOSED TO BE??!!” It doesn’t help that all the men’s names end with “us” and the women’s with “a,” so telling your Drusus from your Thesus from your Iullus isn’t as easy as you might think.
Even worse, in the “older” episodes, there are a bunch of teenage children living with Livia’s family, some of whom are children of the key characters while others, I have no idea what their connection is supposed to be. So when Julia is sad because she has to marry Marcellus, but is in love with some other guy-us, I had a hard time caring since I couldn’t keep ANYONE straight.
I did like that they included a person of color in a key (fictionalized) role — Livia’s slave/companion Antigone. The ancient Roman empire was massive and very diverse, so the whitewashed version that’s often seen on screen is a very inaccurate portrayal (doesn’t help that you’ve generally got British actors playing Mediterranean characters).
I was also confused by what seemed like some wasted characters, like Octavia the Younger, sister of Gaius and one-time wife of Mark Antony. Her whole focus seems to be who should marry her brother and son, and while that was a big part of Roman power politics, she comes off as somewhat shallow as a result.
A major shout-out is due to Isabella Rossellini as Balbina, a madam who gets the most Bitchy Roman line in the series (“You don’t know who you’re fucking with!”) and looks FABULOUS in purples and practically-Medusa hair:
According to this review by Daisy Dunn, classicist, author, and cultural critic, the series certainly embellishes and even plays “fast and loose with history,” but the first season seems like a promising set up for future seasons:
Domina is by no means a documentary account of the empress. The first three episodes feature some curious inventions and passages of storytelling … But for the most part it captures well the spirit of the age, its values, and with some authenticity (observe Livia’s saffron-coloured wedding apparel) the fashions and architecture, too. Especially accurate is the fear of dictatorship and monarchy that rumbles beneath the story … As the series progresses … we are likely to see more of the Livia we are familiar with. She will necessarily be shown immersed in matters of state … What new interpretations such as Domina have the power to do is to reframe Livia’s involvement in public affairs as evidence of her intelligence and keen political engagement rather than evil meddling. There are good signs that the series will be doing just that” (The truth behind Ancient Rome’s most controversial woman).
If you’d like to know more about the real Livia, I can recommend these episodes of The Other Half podcast.
The only costume thing I am even vaguely qualified to comment on is the hair, which is beautiful (except Livia’s tendency to wear her hair almost unstyled):
But it looks nothing like the “nodus” hairstyle, which both Livia and Octavia are depicted wearing in basically ever contemporary portrayal:
So, if you’re up for trying to keep all the characters straight, Domina might get you through yet another week of the pandemic. Hold tight, we’ll review the costumes soon!
Heh, I’ve see HBO’s Rome several times and those actors are the blueprint for me now. I wonder if I would be able to keep up.
Livia has been unfairly vilified by both historians and especially writers. There’s no good reason to believe she ever poisoned anyone and Augustus obviously trusted her and relied on her advice. She was a powerful woman, yes, but only because a powerful man wanted her at his side. Augustus was neither a fool nor pliable. If Livia had undercut him in any way, much less poisoned his heirs! She’d have paid for it.
The costumes are very pretty but look more later Empire to me. Where are the Stola? Not to mention the draperies you see on statues.
“Some other guy-us” hahhhahhahahaaa! I almost spewed my coffee I laughed so hard. I love that all of you have such distinctive voices in your writing that I can immediately tell who wrote what without looking at the byline.
And yes, Trystan needs to that purple number/medusa hair.
Daw, you get me!
Incidentally, is it too much to hope that we might get a cameo appearance from Caenis, slave of Antonia Minor (Mark Antony’s daughter, Claudius’s mother), who was the lover of Vespasian for more than 30 years?
Ew, having the only Black character be enslaved. That’s not how ancient Rome worked!
She is at least given her freedom midway through?
Agreed! Especially at this point in time where the empire is pretty huge and takes up a good chunk of north Africa and all of Anatolia, with diplomatic and trade ties that reached far further- roughly 50 years after Livia died, a Chinese general (in the Han Dynasty) tried to send an envoy to Rome, and eventually the two empires had emissaries visit each other. East Africans from as far south as Mozambique, people from the Indian subcontinent- the list keeps going.
Roman slavery and citizenship laws were different from, say, American chattel slavery- they were not good or even necessarily better (a much higher rate of slaves becoming free and their children being full citizens, but wars against a country were wars against all the people of that country, usually including civilians and children). Roman citizenship and slavery had a whole different form and function, and they regularly used integration for political, economic and military benefits. To show a single enslaved Black woman in a lily-white cast is to miss the shape of what it meant to be Roman, especially at this stage in the empire.
I also don’t know how I feel about ex-slave/best friend dynamics. Yes that’s kind of a thing in Rome, but it stinks of Gone with the Wind “loyal servants stay on the plantation and are more like family than slaves”. Antigone is a made up character, you could have just as easily written her as a woman of African descent with inherited wealth who was a playmate for Livia because their families did business together all the time. I do like the idea of exploring ex-slave/ex-mistress dynamics but to do so with the one Black actor you hired when it is entirely plausible to have freed people of any color because Rome’s slavery was not race-based… yeesh, talk about pigeonholing.
For anyone interested in how Roman multiculturalism worked, I highly recommend this blog series on Rome’s perpetual incorporation of very different communities through conquest, alliances, slavery-then-citizenship and states that are harder to explain (exploited junior partnerships? allies? colonies?). It’s written by a historian specializing in the Ancient Mediterranean. There’re lots of primary sources but while it can take some brain juice to parse out, it’s not dry at all. As you can tell from the first post, it goes back to the very beginning of what would become Rome, and spiraled out further and further https://acoup.blog/2021/06/11/collections-the-queens-latin-or-who-were-the-romans-part-i-beginnings-and-legends/ At this point there should be Egyptians, Greeks, Berbers, Ethiopians, Syrians, Parthians, etc. of various status getting involved in the drama, or just milling around in the background.
All super interesting points! Thanks for taking the time, I’ll definitely check out the blog.
On Youtube, Mary Beard has a 3-part series called Meet the Romans, originally on British TV. She makes the same point on how multiracial Rome was. She’s a highly qualified historian of ancient Rome and written many books and TV documentaries on Rome.
It is and it isn’t. There were definitely black slaves, along with white ones and brown ones, but there were also Citizens and Equites, and possibly Senators with dark skins.
Speaking of coloring, Augustus was, according to the historical evidence, blondish with a fair skin. The Julii are supposed to have been historically blond but other Roman nobles were dark, hence the cognomen Niger, or redheaded, Rufus.
Oh definitely, there were slaves of every color, and wealth definitely was entrenched in patrician families from near Rome, but there were a lot of rises to power and even more earning of full citizenship- by Marcus Aurelius’ reign, there were dozens each of senators who traced their roots to Africa and Syria (and those are only the ones we know of) serving in the senate at one time. You couldn’t get to the senate without connections, money, military prowess, and general prestige, so it wouldn’t be weird to write Antigone as a daughter from a powerful family, even though this takes place earlier, in the turnover from Republic to Empire.
Obviously integration =/= a lack of bigotry. Griping about integration goes back basically as far as the sources do, when it’s about integrating other communities from what is now considered Italy. However, in the long run putting barriers to citizenship and power was generally considered more costly than integration, especially when it comes to military service because Rome needed those troops and they needed them to be loyal.
What bothers me is that it’s the token Black character, that she takes on the role of Black Best Friend who has no life goals but dealing with Livia’s problems, and that she’s a former slave treated as a sibling? Yikes, that screams of happiness in slavery narratives from the Mid-Atlantic chattel system- Gone With The Wind and other American ones are more familiar to me, but it’s there in the UK too. Even divorced from slavery narratives, it’s just crappy that that’s all that character (and actor) gets to do- suffer and be supportive.
The thing that goes so far from history it loops right around into being funny to me is that the majority of the cast is from the British Isles playing high-status Romans. If there’s anyone Rome was resistant to integrating, it was Gauls, Germans and Britons. Britannia, when it was actually conquered, which it barely was at this point, was a really poor province prone to uprisings. These tribes were othered a lot – there was a lot of fear mongering about how they practiced human sacrifice and their barbaric religion, which is notable because Romans adopted “exotic” deities like Isis and Mithras pretty easily and by the early 400s the most popular religion in town was this weird offshoot from a Levantine religion you might’ve heard of.
Bringing it back to costumes, my favorite thing about this whole affair with the Gauls is that conservative Romans worried when soldiers in cold climates wore breeches because that meant they were forgetting their roots and adopting the barbaric ways of the Gauls. I like to imagine your conservative uncle haranguing you about this at Roman Thanksgiving.
Longish hair on the young version of August? Nope, it was a big no-no in that epoch in Rome. No long hair for men. Well, maybe for slaves, actors or foreigners, but a Roman dude from a serious Roman family never wore his hair that long. Look at the contemporary portraits, all the dudes sport their hair cut short!
I beg to differ: I saw that bust of Livia in the nodus hairstyle at the British Museum the other day, and she looks EXACTLY like a sweet, prissy, but totally ruthless 1950s housewife. I’d pay good money to see a Livia coiffed like that poisoning her way through Imperial Rome.
I’m really having trouble getting excited about costume dramas these days. So many of them just seem… bad. And the glut of them on various streaming networks is often B-grade dubbed stuff. I need something GOOD for once.
I just finished watching Domina and I could talk about it for daysss: its deeply problematic depiction of slavery and enslaved characters; the anachronistic “restoring the republic” subplot; the characterization of Tiberius as a serial killer; the fact that virtually every episode includes at least one scene of someone on the toilet…
But in regards to costumes, one thing that bugged me is that they would include obscure historical details (like the saffron wedding veil) but not bat an eye at doing things like putting all the male characters in floor-length tunics and bracelets. This was an ongoing problem in the show, I found; the filmmakers would draw lots of attention to their inclusion of random historical tidbits, but then get extremely basic things wrong. Works like Gladiator and HBO’s Rome were far more inaccurate in terms of their costume, but I also don’t mind them as much because they make no pretense about being accurate.
Also, I would have loved to have seen was how the historical Livia presented herself as an ideal, conservative Roman matron. This isn’t really a criticism of the show, but it would have been amazing from a costuming/storytelling point of view to have shown how Livia used dress as a way of legitimizing her husband’s rule, instead of just making her generically sexy.
I found the show’s portrayal of the enslaved/ slavery a bit more nuanced than some other toga flicks, aside from the fact that all characters of color are enslaved and all the free characters are white. I liked, for example, the fact that they showed slaves being mischievous, insolent, plotting, etc., i.e. showing agency. I’m curious what you found (most) problematic.
I agree that the show did attempt to acknowledge the horrors of slavery and to humanize the enslaved characters, unlike a lot of shows and movies, so they absolutely deserve credit for that. However, they still played into a lot of harmful tropes and took lots of things for granted. There is so much to talk about, but I’ll focus on how the characterization of Antigone in the show.
Antigone was not a fully developed character, in my opinion. She exists in the show to support Livia (and solve her problems) and to be subjected to trauma in order to show the audience how bad slavery is. There are hints of Antigone’s life outside of her relationship with Livia, but it is pretty fleeting. She has a husband (or two); she is pregnant in one episode, but in the next, we are told the baby was stillborn and that she’s back to galavanting around Italy helping out Livia.
I get that this is ultimately Livia’s story and to be fair, the show doesn’t really develop any of the other characters, free or not. But you can’t have Antigone say that she thinks of Livia as her sister, but not acknowledge the fact that Antigone was enslaved by Livia’s father. They are not sisters. Livia is her patron and there is a vast power imbalance between them. It also raises the question of her natal family. Does she not have siblings or parents of her own? There might be a perfectly innocent explanation for why they are not depicted on the show, but given that Antigone was enslaved, it’s not unreasonable to assume that were sold off or that they had died, maybe abandoned at the Temple of Asclepius.
I hope that made sense. Again, there is so much more to say (I also have strong feelings about their treatment of Aprio), and I do acknowledge that the show does make more of an effort than most, but I just feel that they dropped the ball.
Thanks for taking the time to explain. Even Antigone’s husband? bf? at one point is like, “you might as well still be enslaved to Livia.” We’ve seen the self-sacrificing, heroic enslaved/ dark-skinned best friend so. many. times, in Gladiator, Game of Thrones, Pompeii, Spanish Princess, etc etc. Antigone doesn’t exist as an independent character with her own motivations: she’s there for us to say, “look how brave and progressive Livia is! Not like those other bratty Romans.”
These limited depictions aren’t historically accurate, they’re not dramatically satisfying, they’re just deeply lazy storytelling.
Romans like educated Greeks for personal slaves, who were expected to read to and converse with their owners as well as dress them. Such high class attendants were highly prized and often did become close to their owner and we’re rewarded with freedom. An historic example would be Cicero’s trusted slave, later freedman, Tiro. ‘Antigone’ should have been ethnically Greek, and possibly married advantageously as well as freed.
On the other hand Livia might very well have been childhood besties with the dark skinned daughter of a wealthy Equites whose Punic ancestors had been granted citizenship after the Numidian wars, in which case her name would be Caecilia or Rutilia or Maria deriving from the gentilical name of her father or grandfather’s Roman patron.
It would have certainly been more realistic to have a few blond Germanic slaves, who were very fashionable and stereotyped as big and dumb. Greeks and Levantines were supposed to be clever and treacherous, North Africans sexually voracious.
On the other hand there were Equites and Senators with exactly the same ancestry.
I wondered as the season went on if many scenes were cut out for the US broadcast, because plots were often disjointed. The season could have functioned better if it was given a couple more episodes, or if the time-jump had skipped further into the action. For example, the first episode post time-jump is called ‘Family’ and is supposed to show how Livia establishes her husband as a legitimate dictator. However, a better title would be ‘Turtle Murder,’ since that plot takes up just as much room.
It’s strange to see multiple characters
portrayed by the same actors from age 12 to around age 20, but then one character from the same age group is in fact recast.
One thing that really bothered me is that Antigone repeatedly expresses her love and loyalty towards Livia’s sons, but I don’t remember any scenes of them together. It seems like she was a second mother to them, but it only impacts her characterization, not theirs.
If the show is given a second season, I would like to see Livia act rather than react, because she’s shown as an excellent improviser but pretty terrible at long-term plans.
Good question on whether the US version deleted scenes — that would explain why the show was SO jumpy!
Both Livia and Augustus made a point of presenting themselves as virtuous, old Romans, meaning they dressed plainly and conservatively. Livia claimed to weave Augustus’ togas with her own hands like a virtuous matron.
I’m shocked that you thought Young Agrippa looked like Older Agrippa. He shrank by a foot as he aged!
As a huge fan of ancient, especially Roman, history, I’m excited to see you writing about the show. I can’t stand what they did to young Octavian- the long shaggy hair? The tunics that make him look like he’s toddling around in his daddy’s clothes? The bratty smirk? And older Octavian is basically a non-entity, which I get if you’re trying to show Livia is the real balls behind the throne, but the viewer comes away with no real idea of how or why this guy came out the big winner against all the other insanely ambitious aristocrats.
Too many tarrapins, couldn’t care less about any of the younger generation, no idea what drives them.
Yet overall I’m excited to see a female-centered show like this and will definitely rewatch it. Sky Italia recently came out with another Roman-era show (in archaic Latin!), “Romulus”, that I couldn’t wait to see, but it’s just another play on blood, boobs, and bad acting with shite costumes covered in mud and no female characters even worth mentioning. Exactly like the unspeakably awful “Barbarians”.
This show was a mess. I wholeheartedly agree with the problematic portrayal of having Antigone as an African slave who was treated benevolently and was ever-loyal to Livia. That whole plotline rubbed me the wrong way. Chemistry: NONE of these people had chemistry with each other. As far as aging the characters–This is a big problem in British shows. They simply DO NOT CARE about casting people who look like different ages of the same person. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen this happen in British shows. The actors are generally good–but you spend most of your time being distracted by exactly what Kendra brought up: There’s NO WAY that person aged to look like this person!! For me, Rome is the gold standard, and this just seemed like drivel. If there had been any chemistry in any relationship (not only romantic) from the actors, that might’ve drawn me in. But this was just….awful.
the actress change for Livia….. i didn’t know there was rhinoplasty in ancient rome!!!!!!! :0
I would love to see a post on the costumes!