Monday, August 24, 2009

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Where Art Thou?

I've recently been watching the HBO/BBC TV series ROME (perhaps for the 6th or 7th time, I must admit), and as I mentioned in my "future plans" post, I intended to discuss the portrayal of Marcus Agrippa and how he differs from the historical Agrippa. Therefore, that is the topic I will discuss today.

I should preface this by saying I very much like Rome. I think it's a well written show, with excellent acting, dialogue and set design. Generally the departure from historical fact does not bother me whatsoever, as I can understand why it's done. One such exception is with the character of Agrippa (played by the Irish actor Allen Leech). My plan here is to list the differences between the character in the TV show and the historical Agrippa (as much as one exists), and then discuss why the writers chose to depict Agrippa as they did.

SO...the differences! There are a great number. First of all, let's consider Agrippa's family. In the TV show both Agrippa and Octavian make mention of his "low plebeian" status. It is conjectured (realistically, I believe) that Agrippa's father was a certain Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa, and that they were a family of Equestrian rank.

There is a rather strong focus on Agrippa's low status, as it's used on several occasions to drive forward the narrative. My personal feelings are that it's overemphasised, in order to support the characterisation of Agrippa as a "loyal Lieutenant" and not much else. Plebeian he may be, but he was to ascend to the highest ranks of Roman public life, and he was after all, of sufficient birth to be educated alongside Octavian (which is how they became friends).

Further to this, there is no mention of Agrippa's marriage to Caecilia Pomponia Attica (daughter of Cicero's friend, Atticus) in the early 30s (very much in the shows timeline), and as an offshoot of this there is, of course, no mention of their child born soon after the wedding (Vipsania Agrippina). In the show Agrippa is very much unmarried throughout.

Somewhat related is an affair, depicted in the TV show, between Agrippa and Octavian's sister, Octavia. This is entirely fictional, and serves only as a dramatic device in the show. Although the love affair is finished by Agrippa after Octavian finds out (an example of his being the ultimate Loyal Lieutenant), there are hints that their feelings continue throughout the 30s B.C.E, and again there is no single mention of that fact that the historical Agrippa was both married and a father.

On the topic of his public life, the show, again, fails to mention almost anything. He remains the loyal lieutenant of Octavian, but seems to hold no public office himself. The historical Agrippa entered the Senate as a Tribune of the Plebs (perhaps 43.B.C.E), and served both as Consul (37.B.C.E) and Aedile (33.B.C.E) during the timeline represented by the show, but he is not shown to explicitly hold any of these offices.

On the topic of his character and his abilities, again the character of the TV show differs greatly from the historical Agrippa. It's a well documented fact that Agrippa was an excellent General, and it was through his leadership that Octavian and his armies could establish sole control over Rome. At Mutina, and more specifically Actium, it is Agrippa's military genius that won the day. In the show, he is seen briefly at Mutina, and he's nowhere near Actium (the only mention of him is by a newsreader in Rome reporting the battle).

Agrippa as a great General is barely seen in the TV show, and one must ponder why (more on this later). A few fleeting mentions to his celebrated military talents are all he gets.

The difference in character is perhaps the most striking thing of all, however. The historical Agrippa, through virtue of his accomplishments, was a commanding General, respected and forceful magistrate and strong leader. The Agrippa on the TV show, is rather meek, somewhat bumbling, a little insecure and nothing more than a loyal servant of Octavian. It's also difficult to escape the notion that he's also a little "boyish", in both manner and appearance.

On the topic of the later, Allen Leech does not strike the same robust figure that the busts of Agrippa suggest that he was. While this is not necessarily a hindrance (James Purefoy is not the bull-like man Antony is said to have been, but he plays the role superbly), in combination with the meekness of the portrayal, it's hard to ever believe that the character is Agrippa.

Given the legion of differences, I now ask the question: why?

The matter of Agrippa's family is perhaps the easiest to answer. The series omits many historical figures for the sake of simplicity and smoothness of narrative (Crassus, although dead when the series begins, is never mentioned, Octavia's husband Claudius Marcellus, and their three children, are never never seen, Brutus' wives are never seen - Claudia Pulchra, nor Porcia Catonis, and these are just some of the many historical figures not in the show).

Given the immense complexity of Roman families, allegiances, marriages and so on, it's quite reasonable to expect, for the sake of a cohesive story, that many of them will never appear. Agrippa's family is never mentioned primarily because they were considered "extra". They do not serve the storyline and would therefore just confuse matters, and so they were omitted.

The affair with Octavia was invented for similar reasons, I think. This time is does serve the story (it's dramatic and when Octavian finds out it helps give him leverage in forcing Mark Antony to leave Rome, for Octavia was his wife and she was cheating on him with a "low born Pleb").

As regards Agrippa's public career, his offices are never mentioned for a few reasons. The foremost is that Agrippa plays the role of Lieutenant, and in most cases he's simply an advisor to Octavian, in that respect the character needs no office of his own, for he's not the focus. In most ways it doesn't matter what office Agrippa holds, for his role in the TV show remains the same.

Further to this, is that the second season (the timeline when Agrippa would hold the offices of Tribune of the Plebs, Consul and Aedile) plays thick and fast with history - the many events of the early 30s and squashed or skimmed over somewhat, and so Agrippa's consulship and activities of this time are given short thrift.

The character's lack of great military abilities can also be partly explained in this way. Many of Agrippa's achievements are not mentioned in the show - it basically goes from Caesar's murder, through Philippi and then jumps very much to the later 30s and the struggle between Octavian and Antony near it's conclusion. Agrippa's defeat of Sextus Pompeius in the seas around Italy, as well as his time fighting the Germanic tribes while Governor of Transalpine Gaul are never mentioned - and so there is no opportunity to focus on his military acumen, other than brief mentions after Mutina and Actium (which are relegated from importance because the series cares more for Octavian/Antony and their power struggle than what the "Loyal Lieutenant" Agrippa is up to.

Related to this is why he's depicted as a somewhat meek and bumbling character. Without need for focus on his military achievements, but unable to really remove him from the picture, what role can Agrippa really play? The only answer is really that of advisor, and so immediately he's relegated from the status of the historical Agrippa. Again, though, why so meek? I have a few ideas, but it's still not especially obvious.

Perhaps most obviously, he plays a lover to Octavia, and his bumbling "I would tear down the skies if you asked me to" act allows a certain amount of sympathy to be felt for him, and as a consequence the love affair. He is acutely aware of his lower status throughout the relationship, and this is brought to the fore when it's used to coerce Mark Antony into leaving Rome. In essence, he plays a character who knows his social position and has no ideas beyond his station.

Another idea I've considered is that the character was designed to play foil to Gaius Maecenas, as they both advise Octavian (Maecenas being the darker, more inclined to lies style of advisor and Agrippa the excessively loyal and honest type). I'm not sure how much mileage this idea has, but I think it's valid enough.

After discussing it with my girlfriend a little, she made the interesting observation that Agrippa is required to fill the role as the only "purely nice and honest" character in the show. This may be a case when the most obvious solution is the best one, and as a mode for explaining the very different Agrippa it works very well.

Overall, I think his meekness is a result of his role in the show (a fiercely loyal and honest Lieutenant, not equal to Octavian) and the need for him to be a sympathetic character in both his love for Octavia (a women well above his social status, and he knows it) and his contrast to the more nefariously depicted Maecenas as advisor(s) to Octavian.

It's worth at this point conceding that the creator of the show (Bruno Heller) never intended the show to be 100% historically accurate, but that the aim was to show:

"Much more about how the psychology of the characters affects history rather than simply following the history as we know it".

In this respect, Agrippa is merely a facet of this. He is changed so considerably so that the character's psychology may fit the requirements of the narrative. To me, the change is so drastic, and it's perhaps simply a result of there being too many other psychologies driving the show forward, and so Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was changed so that his could fit in somewhere.

The show's historical advisor, Johnathan Stamp, adds that the series was more about "authenticity" than "accuracy", but I think in the case of Agrippa especially neither category is fulfilled. The character is definitely not an accurate portrayal of the historical Agrippa, but accuracy has not been sacrificed and authenticity retained, for there is nothing authentic about the character of Agrippa in the show - he's almost pure creation.

I should say that I'm not altogether annoyed by the character of Agrippa in the show (historical accuracy does not always need to be the primary aim of such shows), but simply that I find the vast difference between the character and the historical figure to be curious, and so I was interested in exploring those differences and the reasons for them. In actual fact, I rather like Allen Leech as an actor, and the role of the "new" Agrippa is actually rather likeable in most ways.

I also think it's wise to realise that this small analysis is tainted by the notion that it's impossible to know the "real" Agrippa anyway, and that perhaps commenting on his character is a false enterprise from the off. Nevertheless, I think the historical Agrippa we can infer, grasp or leap at is so substantially different form the character of the TV show, that this endeavour remains thoroughly worth it.

In summing up, I think all I can say is that the driving force behind writing this article was the feeling that the character Agrippa is just not Agrippa. One conjures an image of all classical figures that is quite unique (the Caesar in my mind may be different from the one in in yours, and this in turn is hugely important in the "reception" of historical figures), and so my Agrippa, based on my studies of him and the period more generally, mixed with my own imagination, leads me to believe nothing but the conclusion that "this" Agrippa is an imposter.

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