A young girl runs through misty woods, uttering the immortal phrase, “The first rule of power is survival.” These are the opening words to the epic new drama of the Roman Empire, Domina, and set the tone for the turbulent events to come.
The title also gives the viewer a clue. It’s the feminine form of ‘Dominus’, the Latin word for master, and while it is set in an era that has seen more than a great many screen dramatizations, it hints at a different perspective.
“ It’s a political drama, but told from the point of view of the wives, daughters, mothers, sisters and mistresses at a time when policies were being made in the bedroom and not in the senate, ” says show creator and writer Simon Burke. .
Sky’s eight-part drama Domina explores the Roman Empire from the women’s point of view. Pictured: Kasia Smutniak as Livia
And one woman in particular dominates – Livia Drusilla, who overcame adversity to become the most powerful woman in the world.
Wife of the first Roman Emperor Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus Caesar, created her own dynasty as the mother of Emperor Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius and great-grandmother of Caligula.
But it wasn’t just her bloodline that cemented Livia’s place in history. Feisty and ambitious, she became a powerful political force in her own right and one whose legacy echoes through the ages.
‘In a way, we can say that Livia was one of the first feminists,’ says Kasia Smutniak, who plays her.
She fought for her rights and for women. She used strength to survive. She was a tough woman who was both feared and cherished. ‘
Simon repeats those thoughts. “Livia changed the game for Roman women who followed her,” he says. “Her story from wealth to rags to power is utterly compelling.”
Series focuses on Livia who was the wife of the first Roman emperor Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus Caesar. Pictured: Matthew McNulty as Gaius
Still, for many, this eight-part Sky drama will be the first time they hear from her. Such was the case for Nadia Parkes, who appears as young Livia. “I forgot that even women existed in Roman times,” she laughs.
‘I think the degree of my knowledge of that period is the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar.
So I discovered a whole world that I didn’t know – all these amazing women that existed with their own feelings and stories and their own desire for power: the things that we associate today with being a powerful woman existed back then – it’s just not in the history books. ‘
But fans of earlier epic dramas of the era need not fear. There are still plenty of the bloodthirsty battles and lecherous encounters for which the period is known.
Creator and writer Simon Burke said that sex, violence, love, ambition and betrayal are themes in the show. Pictured: Balbina confronts young Livia
“Sex and violence play a role,” says Simon. “Just like love, ambition and betrayal.”
We first meet Livia in 43 BC. At the age of 15 on the eve of her marriage to her cousin Tiberius Nero. Theirs is not a love match, and their pragmatic union takes place against a turbulent backdrop.
Julius Caesar was murdered a year earlier and Rome is on the brink of civil war between those who support his killers and those who want to avenge his death.
Livia’s father Livius hopes that the marriage of his beloved daughter to one of his allies will provide her with some protection – even if the marriage at that age seems repugnant to modern eyes.
Nadia Parkes, who appears as young Livia, said Livia sees marriage at the age of 15 as her duty. Second photo from the left: Tom Glynn-Carney as the young Gaius
“There is a practical reason for it, even if it hates us now, as it should be,” said Game Of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham, who plays Livius.
‘I think the lifespan was between 35 and 40 at the time, so they had to get married young, just to continue the population. They were middle-aged when they were twenty. ‘
Nadia also admits she was shocked at her character’s fate. “Livia grew up knowing that the day she turns 15 is the day she gets married,” she says.
ISABELLA THE ROMAN MADAM
Domina has a powerful performance by that grande dame of European cinema Isabella Rossellini, who plays Balbina, a brothel madam who is an early enemy of Livia.
Although she only appears in one episode, Isabella says she took the opportunity to play her part in this part of her hometown history.
Pictured: Isabella Rossellini as Balbina
“I’ve seen a lot of movies about Rome and Roman times, but I’ve rarely seen it from a woman’s point of view, where the women were the protagonists,” she says.
‘And these women were mean and rebellious, they got their way. Even if they didn’t have many rights, they could still take power. ‘
It’s her third ‘turn’ as Ms., and she confides in having watched YouTube interviews with a famous Parisian brothel owner named Madame Claude for inspiration.
“She was quite a polite, bourgeois lady, made of steel,” says Isabella.
And she spoke so candidly. I think Balbina is crazier and stronger than her, but there was an intelligence I borrowed. ‘
Her month-long filming period in Rome, particularly in the world-famous Cinecittà studios, was an opportunity to return to her roots.
The daughter of director Roberto Rossellini and actress Ingrid Bergman, Isabella spent much of her childhood in the studios watching her father at work.
‘It was a pleasure to go back. The make-up artist, the costume department, they all knew my father, or their parents had worked with him, or their grandfather. So there was a real sense of continuity that really moved me. ‘
“I wanted to say,” That’s ridiculous! ” But for Livia, it’s no big deal – she’s doing her duty and she knows it’s just part of being a woman at the time. ‘
Livia’s father and new husband fight alongside Caesar’s killers against Gaius Octavius, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and the man who would eventually become Livia’s second husband.
As bloody war rages on, it is not long before Livia, Tiberius Nero and their infant son Tiberius are driven from the city. The first two episodes cover their time on the run and in exile in Perugia and Sicily before returning to Rome after amnesty.
On her return, courted by the mighty Gaius, who at first sight would have fallen in love with Livia, divorced his wife and Tiberius forced Nero to divorce Livia, she overcomes her personal antipathy to marry him.
It’s a union that lasted 51 years, making her not only the wife of an emperor when Gaius in 27 BC. Until Augustus Caesar was anointed, but also a political force in itself.
“She married her worst enemy because she wanted to restore the republic and protect her sons,” says Kasia Smutniak.
The role of Gaius is taken by Matthew McNulty, who recently appeared in the BBC’s 19th-century horror drama The Terror. He admits that the challenge of embodying this momentous historical figure was immense.
“I am probably almost shy and sometimes feel physically small,” he laughs. So for me it felt like the biggest challenge to play against someone as great as Gaius. I absolutely loved it. ‘
While Gaius and Livia’s union was notoriously impetuous, he no doubt respected his wife and gave her power over her own finances, something almost unheard of at the time.
“They certainly met their match,” says Matthew.
‘As we have depicted it, they are constantly planning and looking for ways to increase their personal strengths. But I also think that’s why they were so successful.
They were both astute, intelligent and passionate. And they do things that most people would run a mile from; but for them it is constantly testing each other: “Who is going for this? Who is the bravest? “And that’s why it worked.”
Gaius’ sister Octavia brings another intriguing feminine dimension to the power game. “It was fascinating to find out that Octavia and Gaius originally had no status – they came out of nowhere and went to the top,” said Claire Forlani, who is cast as Octavia.
‘You realize she was with him all the way, she married who he needed her to marry, she had kids he needed her to have children with. But behind this deeply maternal woman was also this steel and as much ambition as Gaius – they did it all together. So that was fun to discover. ‘
Filming in Rome, with ancient architectural splendor on every corner, added excitement to the entire cast. “I’ve been everywhere,” says Matthew McNulty.
In the photo: Liam Cunningham as Livius, Nadia Parkes as Livia and Enzo Cilenti as Tiberius Nero
“Walking in the footsteps of the past added to the feeling that it was something special.”
Ben Batt, in the role of Marcus Agrippa, Gaius’ second-in-command and the man who is overseen to build some of the most remarkable buildings in Rome, was also impressed.
It’s a time when policies were made in the bedroom
“I drove to work past the mausoleum of Augustus where Agrippa’s ashes were,” he says.
“This is a man who built so much of Rome, his name is so much in the city, and he also won these huge battles.”
But despite the story’s loyalty to real history, Liam Cunningham thinks it’s the human story viewers will identify with.
“This story is epic, but it’s still people, and they cried, they laughed, they were lonely,” he says.
‘That human aspect is what I think the viewer tunes in to. Because times change, but people don’t. ‘
Domina starts Friday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW.