Sex and Condemnation on “Rome”

Octavia with Servilia

If there’s anything that HBO’s Rome has taught us, it’s that those ancient Romans were a lusty folk. They painted pictures of erect phalluses all over their city; they freely had sex in public; they talked openly about sexual practices with their family members. In other words, sex was a need to be satisfied in whatever way necessary, generally without judgment. But they also used sex for power, either to cement a political alliance, pave the way for future support, or to manipulate a political situation in their favor.

The relationship between Octavia (Kerry Condon) and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) exemplifies both of these characteristics. Though both women are obviously attracted to one another and seek each other out to satisfy their sexual desires, they enter into their relationship out of Octavia’s attempt to gain favor with Servilia, and their relationship ends due to Servilia’s attempt to manipulate Octavia for information about Caesar. Their relationship is actually one of the more unique same-sex relationships on television in recent history.

In episode 6 (“Egeria”), the cunning Atia decides that she must mend fences with Servilia, who is known to be Caesar’s lover. She sends her daughter, Octavia, to bring Servilia a well-endowed man to grace her with sexual favors. Though Octavia is visibly reluctant to deliver this gift, she does follow her mother’s orders. What is surprising is not that Servilia refuses the man, but that she and Octavia have an unmistakable chemistry together. Rome depicts this unexpected sexual spark in a very tasteful sort of way, with lingering glances and silence that is nonetheless clear: Servilia, at least, wants Octavia.

By the next episode (“Pharsalus”), Caesar’s war against Pompey has led Atia to fear that she must move quickly to guarantee Servilia’s support of her family, so she once again sends Octavia to her, but this time to ask for protection. When Servilia agrees, she and Octavia embrace each other, but the simple act of gratitude quickly becomes sexually charged and by the end of the episode the two women are shown lying naked in bed together.

In contrast to the other sexual relationships depicted on the series, the one between Servilia and Octavia is much more sedate and tame. It focuses on sweeping shots of bare skin, eye contact between the two women and gentle caresses, rather than the rollicking motion and sexual frenzy that the other characters are engaged in. The contrast is most striking in episode 8 (“Caesarion”), when Caesar enters Egypt and strikes up an alliance with Cleopatra, the older sister of Egypt’s boy-king Ptolemy.

Depicted as a willful, sensual opium addict, Cleopatra brazenly offers herself to Caesar in order to thank him for saving her from Ptolemy’s assassins—and to underscore her commitment to Rome after Ptolemy is dethroned and she is given the title of ruler of Egypt. Their sweaty, vigorous encounter is contrasted with a serene love scene between Servilia and Octavia that involves little more than Servilia gazing at the naked body of Octavia.

In episode 9 (“Utica”), two years have passed and Caesar—who has had a child with Cleopatra—returns to Rome. At a dinner party at Atia’s residence, he avoids his former lover Servilia, who has continued to have a sexual relationship with Octavia, though it is unclear whether anyone knows about it. After the dinner party, Octavia expresses her concern for Servilia’s continued attachment to Caesar, and it is clear that the two women have developed a loving relationship. But Servilia’s fascination with Caesar continues, and when she discovers that Octavia’s brother, Gaius Octavian, might have knowledge of an illness that Caesar suffers from, she asks Octavia to find out what that illness is so that she can use that knowledge to her advantage.

She is so consumed with finding out this secret that she tells Octavia bluntly, “A young man will tell his lover anything,” suggesting that Octavia should seduce her brother, who has always been attracted to her. Repulsed by Servilia’s suggestion, Octavia begins to leave, but is brought up short when Servilia tells her that Atia had Octavia’s husband murdered, a revelation that turns Octavia’s loyalties firmly toward Servilia and away from her own family.