The Roman Empire - In The First Century
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Interview: Lyn Goldfarb
Lyn Goldfarb
Interview with Lyn Goldfarb, executive producer, director, co-writer

How did you become interested in making a film about the Roman Empire?

Margaret and I had worked together on a series called "The Great War" and we were looking for ideas for a new series that we could work on together. She had this long passion about the Roman Empire, and the moment she started talking about her vision, I started getting very excited. I had always been interested in history. My passion is making the past real and accessible to people. The Roman Empire presented wonderful challenges and it was very exciting to portray it in a different way.

Our approach in telling the story was to use first person writings from the first and second centuries. Actors read these roles and that gave the history a real intimacy, a real immediacy. The series gives people the opportunity to learn and experience people's lives 2,000 years ago, and to see that many of the concerns, much of the language that they used was very familiar. It was very similar to what we have today.

Why are people still interested in the Romans?
It always amazes me to meet so many people all over the world who are intrigued about the Roman Empire. It's a hot topic. I think that people are interested because it's so relevant. It says something about who we are as a people. It provides a connection between our past and our present. The Roman Empire, although distant and far away, is relevant in terms of the issues in their lives – the political problems and the concerns about democracy.

Those issues were dealt with then and they're dealt with now. I think that people would like to see that we have roots that are longer than our own memories. The Roman Empire is, in many ways, the history of western civilization. It's as important for Americans as it is for Europeans, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

I think the history of the Roman Empire is interesting to people today because it is a great story. The characters are interesting. They're dramatic. They're intriguing. Their lives are filled with the best elements of drama. So we tend to look at them and say, “Oh, that's a great story.”

What were some of the greatest challenges you faced making this film?
I think that certainly the greatest challenge that we faced in the beginning was how we were going to produce a visually compelling film from a period of pre-photographic history. We had a rich collection of art, but one that was limited to the universe of what had been uncovered and preserved for the last 2,000 years. The other major challenge was not to portray the Roman Empire as an empire in ruins. We wanted to go to authentic locations – the real places – to film it in a way that captured the core of what a place actually looked like. We were always interested showing a close-up of a scene, as if we had a telephoto lens and were using that small image as a window into a much larger scene.

We were careful in planning the location shoots to preserve the authenticity. We wanted to provide a dramatic and provocative setting in which we could tell these stories – which are so emotionally engaging.

We went all over the western world, the Middle East and North Africa to find the locations that allowed us to tell the stories that we wanted to tell. We ended up filming in eight countries and 47 locations. We developed a style, with simple and evocative props, which allowed us to gain a sense of being there without drawing attention to how we were using the props. We used smoke and diffusion to slightly obscure the reality and keep the viewer's sense of imagination. As much as possible, we used original material, original artifacts or those that were authentically restored.

In filming, we decided to not record sound, except when using military re-enactors. We were often filming in important archaeological and historical sites such as Pompeii, Ephesus, or the old city of Jerusalem, public places that were often swarming with tourists. We then later created a soundtrack that made you feel that you were there.

I do also want to mention that we had a great crew. Michael Chin, our director of photography, worked closely with Margaret and me to help realize our vision. Our editors, Douglas Cheek and Bill Haugse, were tremendous, and our score by Dana Kaproff is powerful and moving. And, of course, our incredible staff helped make the series happen. To name a few: our series producer, Pat Astι, who brilliantly handled anything and everything imaginable; our talented associate producers, Ellen Mulligan and Adrienne Cooksey; and our production coordinator, Derek Bidus. Our chief historian, Keith Bradley, was invaluable in his assistance and input. We traveled with a small, multi-talented crew, which included Jill Tufts, assistant camera, and Patrick Ruth, gaffer and jack-of-all trades. We worked with great production managers and staff on location.

How did the re-enactors help make Roman history come alive?
We tried to create all our scenes at real or reconstructed locations. For example, throughout Europe, there are reconstructed Roman towns, Roman villas, bathhouses, what we often referred to as the "Williamsburgs" of the ancient world. We were always making sure that what we used and what we showed was authentic or reconstructed under the supervision of historians and archaeologists. And we often looked at the art that survived, particularly in Pompeii and Herculaneum, as a result of being buried under the ashes from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius sixteen hundred years ago.

We would look at first century art – we would know it was first century because it was buried in 79 AD – and we would see, for example, a chair that had clawed legs. So when we used a chair from a reconstructed room, we could be assured that this is what it really looked like because we saw it in the original art. In this way, we could check the authenticity chairs, tables, drapery or clothing.

We used the re-enactors sparingly in the series. We used them to create a sense of emotion, mood and place. We used military re-enactors to propel a sense of story and movement, but we never used the re-enactors to create battles because we felt it would look contrived. You're always walking that fine line between drama and documentary and we felt it would be important to use re-enactors to create an impression, not to try to be Roman soldiers. We used two well-known military re-enactor troops, the Ermine Street Guard and Legio VIII, who were careful in their authenticity of materials. We knew that when we worked with a group like this, that they had made all their weapons — their shields and swords — exactly as they were made 2,000 years ago. They made their tents out of leather by hand, and forged the iron spikes over an open flame. They studied the old texts, art and artifacts, and were totally immersed into the process of how something was made back then.

They had trained themselves to march in the way that the Roman army marched, to do the formations that they did. We felt that this allowed us to give the sense of motion, place and authenticity.

What was it like shooting on location at the ruins of Roman cities?
I thought it was incredible. I had been to ruins before this time, certainly in other travels. But coming to a place like Pompeii or the cities of Ostia or Herculaneum, or the Villa of Oplontis, was just an incredible feeling. We had, by that time, read a lot about it. We knew a lot about it. When we walked down a street, we were able to feel what it must have been like 2,000 years ago. When we went into a cafι, and put a few little props there to make it look even more like a cafι, we were able to create the feeling of what somebody must have felt when they were there.

The ability to go into that window ourselves and to be there long enough to feel what it was like, helped tremendously. We scouted in Pompeii two times before we filmed and we filmed for seven days. Every day we were there, we felt we were becoming more a part of the old city. Every day that we walked down those streets or walked into a building that was becoming our home, it gave us a sense of what the life was like. Then we read about somebody who writes about being in Pompeii or writes about an experience and you say, “Oh, I was in that room. I walked down that street. I saw that statue.” It's a very moving experience.

Why are the events of the first century so critical in shaping our perception of the Romans?
I think that this period was important in shaping of the Roman Empire. We take the series through the dynasty developed by Augustus – how it grew, almost destroyed itself and then how it survived. It's a period of great expansion, when the known world is literally ruled by Rome.

The Roman Empire in the first century deals with stories that go beyond Rome. They include Judaism and the beginnings of Christianity, with characters such as Jesus and Paul and Philo. There are Germanic tribes and warriors such as Boudicca in Britain. We're able to experience the Empire throughout its expansion.

How does exploring the lives of the people living in the Roman Empire help us understand Roman culture?
We were able to read writings that are 2,000 years old. Whether they were written by the philosopher Seneca or the historian Tacitus, or an ordinary woman writing a letter to the local magistrate, we can hear it all in their own words. We're able to see how people expressed themselves and how they thought.

I was surprised to find out how much material did exist from the first person point of view. Of course, far more existed than ever made it into the film. You have people's grocery lists, accounts from farms and from trades. You can understand some of the economics of business and of daily life. You can feel the emotion of somebody writing about the pain of losing a wife or child, or a woman being abandoned by her husband. We can read the poetry and understand something about social life, love and sexuality. Both formal and informal writings survived, from manuscripts, to letters on papyrus, to funerary inscriptions carved into marble. It's incredible. One of my favorite people was Pliny the Younger: in fact, both Pliny the Younger and his uncle, Pliny the Elder, were favorites. Both wrote about life as they experienced it. Pliny the Younger wrote hundreds of letters and put together volumes to be published. He was also an eyewitness to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and wrote about that. Pliny the Elder was a scientist and chronicler of life, whose observations on life in the natural world gave incredible insights of what people thought about the universe, or nature or geography. These kinds of writings bring you incredibly close to the people who, I believe, come alive in our film.

How did Romans culture help shape western civilization?

The Romans dealt with problems and concerns in the world, which still resonate today. They dealt with a multitude of different ethnicities, different languages, different religions, living together. They were concerned with issues of freedom and issues of control, of what it meant to be a citizen, or a foreigner or a slave. They showed us how power begets power, how power corrupts, and the dangers of hereditary rule.

What did you discover about the Romans that you didn't expect?
I discovered how familiar their lives were to me today. I mean how familiar their concerns were, whether about work, marriage, love or civic engagement. I was amazed that — just some basics — that they had plumbing systems that were incredibly modern. I was amazed at the transport of water through aqueducts. I was constantly admiring their art, their beautiful handblown glass, engraved silver, jewelry, children's toys — just incredible talent and skill.

What really struck me was when we went to a site in Archeon in the Netherlands. It was a reconstructed village with buildings from the Roman times, going through to the Middle Ages. The Roman bath house had plumbing systems that delivered hot water; they had sophisticated planning and building design. There was a contrast between the magnificence of the Roman structures, and the decline that took place over the next thousand years.

What else did I expect, did I learn about? Looking at the Roman Empire in the first century demonstrated the critical importance of looking at the history of Judaism and Christianity in the context of the Roman Empire. This interdisciplinary approach was very important.

What can the Romans teach us about ourselves?
Our approach to this series really allowed us to see people of 2,000 years ago as people. We see them as the actors in a major world event and the shaping of history. But we're also able to see them as individuals with a whole range of emotions and desires. That was very exciting – the intimacy, the knowledge and the familiarity we were able to create. I believe we were able to bring this period of "ancient history" to life in an interesting, intriguing and entertaining way.

Where to Next:
Interview - Executive Producer Margaret Koval
Expert Historians

Related Links:

Episode 1   Episode 1
Interview: Margaret Koval   Interview: Margaret Koval
The Series

- Episode 1:
  Order from Chaos
- Episode 2:
  Years of Trial
- Episode 3:
  Winds of Change
- Episode 4:
  Years of Eruption

- Transcript 1:
  Order from Chaos
- Transcript 2:
  Years of Trial
- Transcript 3:
  Winds of Change
- Transcript 4:
  Years of Eruption

- Interview Lyn Goldfarb

- Interview Margaret Koval

- Expert Historians

- Credits

The Roman Empire - In The First Century