Here's a serious review by Dr Anna Clark who teaches Roman history
at Christ Church College, Oxford:
(Having watched the entire series, I recommend the Bananae episode as most fun and more or less family friendly. Spoiler alert: it's all about your first taste of a banana.)
If you criticise this sitcom for its historical inaccuracies, you're missing the point. Plebs transfers 21st-century characters and preoccupations to ancient Rome
– and finds humour in that mismatch. It's explicitly not trying to be educational: the writers seem proud of their anachronisms.
I was surprised, then, to find some accuracies here and there. It's set in 27BC, when Rome
really did feel like the centre of the universe (to the Romans
at least). The main characters – Marcus
, Stylax and their slave Grumio – live cheek by jowl in rented rooms, overseen by a dodgy landlord. From what the ruins of Pompeii tell us, this seems to be how many people lived, though I suspect actual Roman
landlords were much less pleasant.
Each episode picks out a theme that plays to all the usual Roman
stereotypes, such as gladiators and orgies. I was glad to see that they didn't have the gladiators fighting in the Colosseum, as it wasn't built until decades later. As for the orgies, we don't know much about what actually took place, apart from the odd lurid account by an emperor. I've never heard of cage-fighting going on, but that might just be my ignorance.
The notion of the boys having a slave is not unreasonable; as to whether they would have been nice to him, we can't really say. Relationships did develop with trusted slaves: Cicero
, for example. With his
deadpan delivery, Grumio is a lot like Baldrick in Blackadder. In the first episode, a young British woman, Cynthia, and her slave move into the boys' rooming house. It's hard to believe that Britons really would have been hanging around in Rome
in 27BC – Britain
didn't become part
of the Roman Empire
until AD43 – but they're clearly riffing on the idea of backpacking Britons with guidebooks. It's possible that a woman of status could have lived alone in ancient Rome
, but she would have had
a much larger retinue.
I rather enjoyed seeing graffiti
on buildings. I'm researching Roman graffiti
at the moment. It was a much more widespread practice then, rather than a social nuisance. But the graffiti
that has been found on the walls of Roman
brothels, taverns and houses – "I screwed so and so", "This is how much you pay for a prostitute" – resonates with today. That's exactly the effect Plebs is going for: to make us feel that in the course of human history
, nothing much has changed.