When the young Livia (Nadia Parkes) learns that she is pregnant with her second child, she goes on a rampage, smashing up a household shrine before running into the sea to scream at the heavens, asking the gods what she has done to deserve this. Later, when Octavia, another young woman with immaculately Babylissed curls, discovers she is about to be married off in a politically expedient union, she looks exhausted. She’d “hoped to be left alone for a while at least” after giving birth to two babies in two years - and another wedding inevitably means more pregnancies. “You always worry each birth will be your last,” she says.
In Domina, the big budget new period drama from Sky exploring the life of Livia Drusilla, we are repeatedly shown that for women, Roman life was rubbish. Their primary function was to pop out heirs, but giving birth was painful (“like shitting out a statue,” as one new mother puts it) and perilous. It’s no surprise that the show’s young heroines are less than thrilled when they learn they’re knocked up. These signposts are about as subtle as teenage Livia’s go-to method of fending off an assassin in the opening moments of episode one (she bashes him over the head with a large rock, several times) but they certainly add an interesting dimension to the show’s depiction of female power in ancient Rome.
Writer Simon Burke keeps reminding us that whatever political influence and status an educated woman like Livia might hope to hold - over their fathers, husbands or the country itself - their lives were always contingent and fragile. The girlboss-ification of female figures from history is big business right now, but this tension, captured in strong performances from Parkes and Kasia Smutniak (who plays the older Livia from episode three onwards), gives the title character nuance - and, crucially, stops her from feeling like just another identikit badass woman on a horse.
As the series opens, our teenage heroine, whose enlightened dad Livius (played by Liam Cunningham) has done the unthinkable and educated his daughter, is about to be married off to the distinctly underwhelming Nero (not the famous one). Their wedding, one of many beautifully turned-out set pieces, is marked by snatched, furtive conversations between men in togas: the death of Julius Caesar has left a power vacuum, and his son Gaius (the future Caesar Augustus) is desperate to fill it, though republicans like Livius favour a more democratic set-up. Amid all the skulduggery, though, there’s time for some small talk about Roman plumbing: “We got connected to the aqueduct last year!” Livius tells Gaius (Tom Glynn-Carney, unrecognisable from his turn as Mark Rylance’s angelic sidekick in Dunkirk thanks to a black wig that screams My Chemical Romance circa 2006) when he accosts him in the toilet.
From here, the plot sets off at a breakneck pace, sprinting through vast swathes of history. When a price is put on his head, Livius flees to Greece, Livia and Nero go on the run, then are called back to Rome, where she starts a new romance with Gaius (much to the chagrin of his wife Scribonia). In episode three, there’s a complete change of cast as the action skips forward 12 years, with a pregnant Livia (Smutniak) vying to secure her now-husband (Matthew McNulty)’s power base in the Senate.
With frequent leaps forward in time, the dialogue often strains under the weight of all the exposition that’s required to keep us up to speed (this ponderousness isn’t helped by the Roman tendency to give important men multiple names), but for every potted history, there’s a memorable, zingy line, like Livia’s reaction when she overhears Octavia and Scribonia mocking her at her own wedding. “I’m younger, prettier and richer than you, so why are you laughing at me?” she fumes, like a BC Blair Waldorf.
Cramming Livia’s long, fascinating life into just eight episodes is an ambitious undertaking, so while Domina’s shifts in tone are relentless and sometimes jarring, it’s never boring, The combination of high drama and even higher production values is always an appealing one, making this an entertaining spin on ancient Rome, given depth by its compelling heroine.
Domina is on Sky Atlantic, 9pm on May 14