DOCTOR: You know what this is, child, don’t you? Hmmm?

VICKI: Plans?

DOCTOR: Yes. Caesar Nero made it. The rebuilding of Rome. Let me see,  where are we now? 64 A. D., July. Yes, of course! He sets fire to Rome.

VICKI: I know about that, Doctor![ii]

So goes an exchange between the Doctor (William Hartnell) and companion Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) at  emperor Nero’s (Derek Francis) palace in first century Rome in the 1965 Doctor Who serial The Romans; he and the young girl have gone to the big city on a little side-trip away from their other companions, Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell) -- who are then captured by slave-traders. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds Nero’s plans for the urban renewal of thEternal City. Ian becomes a galley slave, escapes, gets caught, and faces combat in the gladiator arena for the emperor’s entertainment. Barbara has also been sold at the slave market, but she is purchased by imperial slave-buyer Tavius (Michael Peake) and made a domestic slave of Poppaea (Kay Patrick), wife of Nero. Barbara then faces peril from the emperor himself; it’s lust at first sight as he chases the beleaguered Briton up and down the domus corridors. Vicki worries about how the Doctor will manage to impersonate master lyre player Maximus Pettulian[iii] without offending the artistic pretensions of the emperor. All this plus near-sightings of companions, black humour, and sexual innuendo in a four-part adventure where the regulars eventually escape in the confusion of the Great Fire.

BBC production files on Doctor Who indicate that a Roman-era drama had been a given from the days of Doctor Who’s earliest conception,[iv] and the Doctor has encountered Romans at least seven times in his 1000-plus years on television, on audio, and in printed stories.[v] This first televised visit  went out in January 1965 on BBC-1; since then, the Romans came to him in 1969’s The War Games (albeit unwittingly and unwillingly). In the revival, he’s experienced the Fires of Pompeii (2008); companion Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) was ‘Romanised,’ having been erased in time in Cold Blood (2010) only to reappear as a centurion when the Doctor travels to Stonehenge c. A. D. 100 in The Pandorica Opens (2011).

    Despite its small budget, The Romans delivers the goods one would expect from any big budget ‘HollyRome’ extravaganza: director Christopher Barry, writer Dennis Spooner, and production designer Ray Cusick have put all of the classical signposts in place. There is a villa, palace, and dinner party;[vi] a market, slaves, and a galley; gladiators, lions and Christians; and Nero, a fiddle and the fire.[vii] Sure, there’s only two gladiators and one Christian, Ian faces unmatched stock footage of wild beasts,[viii] and Rome afire is a cardboard cutout, but Barbara is worth a whopping ten-thousand sesterces,  Ian sports a toga, and the Doctor displays his chops on the air-lyre.

    Doctor Who was conceived as an educational, family programme, and history lessons were part of that directive.[ix] During William Hartnell’s tenure especially the show presented what were referred to in-house as ‘adventures – historical’[x] and are now referred to as called ‘pure historicals,’ that is, stories which take place during a particular historical event with no science fiction elements or anachronisms outside of the TARDIS crew[xi] (e.g. The Reign of Terror [1964], The Crusades [1965], The Massacre [1966]) It was emphasised in early BBC materials by Sidney Newman that the four travellers in the TARDIS could not make history but only observe it.[xii] What is particularly interesting about The Romans is its strong comedic bent, a first for the programme, especially against the darker plot of slave trading, gladiatorial combat, and the brutality of the Julio-Claudian household. Then there is Nero himself, who is always the default comedy emperor, veering between extreme cruelty and impish humour. This paper then will look at the 1960s pop culture context of The Romans, audience expectations and response to the serial, and comedy, especially in the portrayal of Nero.

    Producer Verity Lambert suggested that The Romans be written as a farce,[xiii] and writer Dennis Spooner, who was friends with Carry On, Cleo (1964) film star Jim Dale, apparently attended rehearsals of the film and took inspiration from it.[xiv] The Romans consequently romps through its paces especially in Part 3, when Nero takes centre stage and overall fulfills the expectations of an audience accustomed to cinematic Rome.[xv] Spooner’s script plays off more of the folkloric character of Neronian Rome much the same way that Hollywood spectaculars borrowed from popular novels.[xvi]  Usually, too, when the Roman era is dramatized for popular consumption, it tends to be realised as a serious spectacle, and such films tout their historical accuracy as a selling point. As a consequence, their grandeur and solemnity are often the target of comedies that subvert Roman history – and these comedies, too, demonstrate their scholarship.[xvii]


Why is Nero the funny emperor, anyway?

    Everyone knows a few things about Nero: he murdered his mother; he fiddled while Rome burned; and he regularly fed Christians to the lions. I am no apologist for Nero, as he was ‘a very naughty boy,’ albeit one whose reputation is currently changing from ‘zero to hero’ among some academics.[xviii] Well-educated, and an aspiring musician, artist, and poet, he was a politically inexperienced boy of 16 when he became emperor in A.D. 54. Despite the sensational claims by the historians that his own mother murdered everyone in sight – including her husband and Nero’s stepfather, the emperor Claudius -- to secure Nero’s place on the imperial throne,[xix] he was, in fact, publicly sanctioned, supported, and promoted as the official heir by Claudius. Spoiled and attention-seeking, he was a direct descendant of the emperor Augustus – had he done nothing else, the blood in his veins made him a ‘natural ruler.’ The young emperor may have scandalized conservative Romans with his predilection for the arts and his enthusiasm for amateur thuggery,[xx] but he was popular in the Greek east where such pursuits were an acceptable part of an aristocrat’s education,[xxi] and he was popular with the proles in Rome for the lavish spectacles he gave them. [xxii] After his death, flowers were regularly left on his grave, and no less than three false Neros attracted popular attention.[xxiii]


Portrayals of Nero on-screen: Derek Francis and Doctor Who

    After Caligula, Nero is probably the most recognized Roman emperor in popular culture, but Nero becomes the sinister buffoon while Caligula is the sex-depraved madman.[xxiv] Derek Francis had requested a role in Doctor Who, although he had to be persuaded to take the role of Nero by Jacqueline Hill.[xxv] He was 45 to real-Nero’s 34, but he leapt into the role of a man who had never heard the word ‘no’ in his life  and made his Nero an ‘innocent psycho.’[xxvi] Appearing at the end of Episode 2, Francis’s emperor sports a laurel wreath, belches, and has come from the baths (the apodyterium). Imperious and fussy, he gnaws on a joint of meat, then wipes his hands on a servant. He lusts immediately for Barbara, pursuing her through the corridors and ambushing her in his wife’s bedroom, yet at the same time cowers before his imperious spouse.  As for Nero’s relationship with the Christians, there’s only the one, Tavius, who helps Barbara to escape,[xxvii] so their persecution does not enter into the plot of the serial. The Great Fire of 64, however, certainly does. When the Doctor and Vicki discover Nero’s plans for ‘new Rome’ pyronic urban renewal was not Nero’s immediate plan, but after the Doctor accidentally sets the plans on fire with his reading glasses, Nero is inspired.[xxviii] A final key theme of the serial is Nero the highly strung musician: he dislikes competition, and the Doctor, mistaken for an expert, spends the story evading performance on an instrument he cannot play.

    Francis captures Nero’s moodiness and temper tantrums with ghastly black humor: For example, the Doctor saves Caesar from a poisoned cup of wine, the emperor thanks him very kindly, then hands the cup to his servant. The man obediently downs the wine and dies. Hmm, shrugs Nero, ‘[The Doctor] was right.’  Just another day in the imperial palace, where, according to poisoner Locusta (Anne Tirard),[xxix] ‘[it’s] almost a tradition…that the family of Caesar want to murder each other.’ Indeed, in real life, in addition to his mother, Nero murdered most of his immediate family – including his step-sister after she rejected his marriage proposal[xxx] – so in rejecting him, Barbara was, to coin a phrase, playing with fire. Another example of Nero’s whimsical cruelty comes when he orders Barbara to accompany him to the gladiatorial school and asks her, ‘Have you ever seen a fight?’ She says, no; he replies, ‘Then I will arrange one while we’re there…I feel like seeing someone hurt myself tonight.’

    A final example of black humour hinges on the main plot point of the music competition between Nero and Maximus Petuallian. The real Petullian had been murdered on Nero’s orders, so the emperor is shocked when the musician, that is, the Doctor, appears. Caesar is aggravated as he assumes Petullian can outplay him --  in fact,  we hear Nero strike only a bad chord (which the Doctor attempts even more badly to imitate).  The emperor fumes when the Doctor plays the ‘silent’ lyre piece that the audience admires (‘It’s the Emperor’s new clothes, my dear! I gave the idea to Han Anderson!’ [sic]) knowing full well he is being mocked . Ever the showman, Nero decides the best way to enhance the Doctor’s/Petullian’s performance is to set lions on the man in the middle of a command performance. Rightfully so, the Doctor suspects Nero’s choice of venue and asks, ‘You want me to play in the arena?...then I shall try to make it a roaring success….something they can really sink their teeth into, hmmm?’

The First Doctor and the Ancients 

1 2
Carey Fleiner 
The First Doctor and the Ancients 

the Roman era tends to be realised as a serious spectacle, and films tout their historical accuracy as a selling point. As a consequence, their grandeur and solemnity are often the target of comedies that subvert history 


[i] The origins of this essay are the result of two happy chance encounters: the more recent was meeting Dene October at the conference Mad Dogs and Englishness held at St Mary’s University in Strawberry Hill, London, on 20-21 June 2013, and who graciously encouraged me to combine my work on Nero with his project on Doctor Who at 50. The other chance encounter was a during rainy weekend afternoon around 1975, when my dad stumbled across this video-filmed, low-rent science fiction show on our local PBS station (WHYY, Wilmington [DE]-Philadelphia) which featured a mad Englishman wearing a long knitted scarf running around a spaceship and said, ‘What in the hell is this?’ (Ark in Space, as it turns out). I am also most grateful to Louise North at the BBC Written Archives, who not only let me run rampant through the Doctor Who files, but  she hunted up ones I didn’t know existed. All references to the programme and character as ‘Dr Who’ are as written on and in the BBC files and documents which I consulted.

[ii] Transcripts of lines from the serial The Romans are my own.

[iii] Despite its other comic elements, The Romans does not include comedy names based on language. ‘Petullian’ itself is meaningless, but its root word may come from petulans, meaning ‘insolent’ or ‘cheeky’ and so Maximus Petullians = Most Obstinant Man – certainly a good descriptor of the Doctor!

[iv] For example, in an early memo from David Whitaker, among the stories commissioned was one on Roman Britain by Malcolm Hulke (BBC Written Archives Centre [afterwards WAC] T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, n. d.), and in the proposal to renew the series in 1964, a memo was put forth on 14 April 1964 from David Whitaker to Verity Lambert that projected at least four historical serials including one with a Roman theme (WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, 14 April 1964). On 26 February, John Crockett supplied David Whitaker with another long list of potential history topics (op cit, 26 February 1964) including a story on either the Roman invasion of Britain, or the decline of the Romans in Britain, and one on Boudicca.

[v] See Lance Parkin, A History: An Unauthorised History of the Doctor Who Universe, 2nd edition (Des Moines, IA: Mad Norwegian Press, 2007), 51-53.

[vi] Historian Mary Beard has developed the ‘dormouse test’ for any representation of Rome in popular culture; the sooner dormice appear at a banquet, the quicker we know how seriously (or not) the filmmakers will take their subject (Alastair J. L.  Blanshard and Kim Shahabudin, Classics On Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film [Bristol: Bristol Classics Press, 2011], 185-86). The props list for The Romans, Episode 3, calls for ‘non prac[tical] food, but it must be very exotic looking ie peacock, boars [sic] head, etc.’ presumably the request of Christopher Barry (WAC, T5/1, 236/1 DR WHO [sic] serial M, Episode 3 (B/e 30.1.65), 4 January 1964) – although the wine served up at the banquets was the prosaic Ribena and blackcurrant cordial (WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who [sic] Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, 8 December 1964).

[vii] Cusick admitted that he had not had time to extensive research – partly due to constraints of time, and partly because even if he had extensively researched to create an impressive Roman set, there was no budget; thus he fell back on stock architecture such as columns and so forth (qtd. in David J. Howe,  Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker,  Doctor Who the Handbook: The First Doctor (London: Virgin, 1994), 90. The floor plan for the serial belies how little space there was for what appeared a spacious villa and palace set onscreen (Plans for The Romans as drawn up by Cusick are included in the BBC written archives files for Episodes 1 and 2, WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who [sic] Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16 and WAC, T5/1, 235/1 DR WHO [sic, and so forth] serial M, Episode 2 (B/e 23.1.65)

[viii] Director Christopher Barry sent several requests to M. Cooper requesting stock film shots of lions, requesting at one point specifically close up images of ‘angry lions’ (WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, 15 October 1964).

[ix] Sidney Newman was particularly sensitive concerning the direction of the show, and his penciled comments on early drafts and promotional material reveal his insistence that the show not be condescending nor forget its educational directive (for example, he criticizes an early proposal that suggests the Doctor was an impish time traveler whose meddling perhaps became the basis for the Tooth Fairy or Jacob Marley, provoking a penciled comment from Newman that such ideas were ‘silly and condescending…it doesn’t get across the basis of teaching or educational experience drama based upon and stemming from factual material and scientific phenomenon and actual social history of past and future’ (WAC T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, n.d.)A excellent summary and discussion of the Doctor Who historical is Daniel O’Mahony, ‘”Now How is that Wolf Able to Impersonate a Grandmother?” History, Pseudo-history, and Genre in Doctor Who,’ in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space: Critical Perspectives on Doctor Who (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 56-67. For a comparable essay on how Roman history is realised in the new series of Doctor Who, see Fiona Hobden, ‘History Meets Fiction in Doctor Who, “The Fires of Pompeii”: A BBC Reception of Ancient Rome on Screen and Online,’ Greece and Rome  56.2 (Oct. 2009): 147-63 and David Rolinson, ‘Richard I in TV Drama: Doctor WhoThe Crusade (1965) and Beyond,’ British Television Drama, 5 November 2010

[x] Much emphasis was laid on identifying the show as an ‘adventure’ to the point where one memo suggests that the programme title add ‘Adventures in Time and Space’ as part of its full title, for example, a handwritten internal memo stamped 13 November 1963 signed by ‘AS’ suggests that the subtitle be added officially to the opening titles of the show (WAC T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, 13 November 1963) and David Whitaker’s memo to the Copyright Department on 31 August 1964 refers to Dennis Spooner’s commission of Doctor Who – The Romans under the heading of ‘theme: Adventure – historical’ (WAC T48/542/1 SpoonerDennis, 31 August 1964). His earlier submission to Whitaker, a draft for the Reign of Terror, is also classed as ‘an adventure’ in a memo from the Serials Department to the Copyright Department (ibid, 2 April 1964). A BBC internal memo that summarises the plot of The Romans refers specifically to the serial was ‘Dr Who: An Adventure in Space and Time’ so the production team were still referring to the subtitle as late as early 1965 (WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, 16 January 1965).

[xi] Pseudo-historicals gave way in the revival to what Russell T. Davies referred to as ‘celebrity-historicals,’ T. Wood, About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who, 2005-2006, Series 1 & 2 (Des Moines: Mad Norwegian Press, 2013), 62.

[xii] WAC T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, n.d., document prepared by Donald Wilson, C. E. Weber, and Sidney Newman.

[xiii] On an undated BBC in-house history of Doctor Who written for John Wiles and Donald Tosh, the unnamed author refers to the Romans as a serial with an ‘accent on comedy’ (WAC T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, ‘A History of Doctor Who’ addressed to John Wiles and Donald Tosh). See also David J. Howe, Mark Stammers, Stephen James Walker, Doctor Who: The Sixties. (London: Virgin Books, 1992), 46 and John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 156-57.

[xiv] Ibid, 46-47; See also Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles. About Time: The Unauthorized  Guide to Doctor Who: 1963-1966, Seasons 1 to 3. (Des Moines: Mad Norwegian Press, 2006), 126.

[xv] For the history of Rome on film see Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (London: Routledge, 1997).  On cinematic signposts to denote Rome, see, for example, Blanshard and Shahabudin, Classics On Screen, 1-14 and 183-86; Nicholas J. Cull, ‘”Infamy! Infamy! They’ve All Got it in For Me!”: Carry On, Cleo and the British Camp Comedies of Ancient Rome,’ in Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2001), 162-65. Hobden’s essay on The Fires of Pompeii thoughtfully addresses the issue of what ‘ancient Rome’ actually means, and if such a place really exists (‘History Meets Fiction,’ 149-56).

[xvi] Two important nineteenth-century novels which influenced the look and expectations of ‘Ancient Rome’ in popular culture were Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 Quo Vadis? and Lew Wallace’s 1880 Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. On the cultural impact of these works on cinema and popular reception of Nero and the Roman empire, see Monica Cyrino, Big Screen Rome (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005),  7-34 (Quo Vadis?) and 59-88 (Ben Hur); Blanshard and Shahabudin, Classics on Screen, 36-57 (Quo Vadis?). Note comments on the props list to find where props call for  gladius and 2 Roman type swords and someone’s written in ‘Ex. “The Spread of the Eagle,” a 1963 BBC three-part  series starring Barry Jones as Julius Caesar and Brian Keith as Mark Antony (WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, 8 December 1964).

[xvii] Examples of this are found within Doctor Who’s own production notes: for example,  Christopher Barry also wrote to Professor A. M. Collini of the Museo Della Civilita Romana for postcards of Rome and models to be used as reference material on the serial (ibid, 29 October 1964). In another memo on file with the BBC archives, Donald Cotton, who novelized The Romans, wrote The Myth Makers (1965), is presumably responsible for an extensive crib sheet of Bronze Age Greek history and bibliography exists in the BBC Written Archive for this serial (WAC T5/647/1 Dr Who General 1963, not dated, but titled ‘Historical Facts About the Trojan War).

[xviii] For a brief recent survey on Nero’s re-evaluation in current scholarship, see Miriam Griffin, ‘Nachwort: Nero from Zero to Hero,’ in A Companion to the Neronian Age (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013), 467- 480.

[xix] Tac., Ann. 12.4, 8, 22, 44-45, 47, 49; 13.1. Dio Cassius reports Agrippina’s hand in the murder of Claudius (Dio Cass. 61.34.1), but John Aveline aptly defends his objections to the veracity of this rumour in The Death of Claudius,” Historia 53.4 (2004): 453-475.

[xx] Suet., Ner. 24. 1-2. He gave up on this hobby after having the stuffing beaten out of him one night.

[xxi] On Nero’s Hellenism, see Sigrid Mratschek, ‘Nero the Imperial Misfit: Philhellenism in a  Rich Man’s World,’ in  A Companion to the Neronian Age,  45-62.

[xxii] Tac. Hist., 4. Tacitus and Suetonius hold Nero and his enthusiasm for games and entertainment and his cruelty in nothing but the highest contempt; both authors, their families, and peers had been affected by the cruelties of the emperor Domitian (81-96) who was a well-educated intellectual who apparently modeled his princely pursuit of the arts after Nero. Edward Champlin, Nero (Harvard University Press, 2005) discusses the problem of Suetonius and Tacitus’s bias (34-39) and positive contemporary response (24-34).

[xxiii] For a thorough study of these pretenders, see C. Tuplin, ‘The False Neros of the First Century,’ in Studies in Latin Literature and History 5 (1989): 364-404; Champlin discusses them briefly a well as how their appearance influenced Christian writers to morph Nero into the coming Anti-Christ from Antiquity through to the Middle Ages (Nero, 10-24).

[xxiv] On depictions of Nero in cinema at least through to the end of the 1990s, see Wyke, Projecting the Past, 110-46. She focuses in particular on how Victorian literature shaped twentieth-century film portrayals of the emperor, and then the evolution of the character of Nero as a reflection of both Italian and American culture from the 1950s.

[xxv] Howe, Stammers, Walker, Doctor Who: The Handbook, 89.

[xxvi] Wood and Miles, About Time, 125.

[xxvii] The novelization has Nero musing on feeding Christians to the lions as well as the novelty of turning them into human tiki torches (Donald Cotton, Doctor Who: The Romans [London: Target, 1984], 82) – a horrific spot of comedy lifted directly from Tacitus’s account of the fire (Tac., Ann. 44).

[xxviii] Nero did have plans to rename Rome ‘Neropolis,’ but what is overlooked is his beneficence after the fire in 64: he ordered that once the debris was cleared away, wider streets be built, new buildings were to be made of stone and not wood (much of the districts that burned were crowded, wooden tenement houses), and passed a number of laws about maintaining the water supply and use of fire in the city. (Tac., Ann. 43) – cynics suggested his generosity was a result of guilt; and then there was Nero’s plans for his Domus Aurea, the Golden House (Tac., Ann. 42): a costly boondoggle left unfinished by his death in A. D. 68. Tacitus remarks, too, that there were two fires in A.D. 64: the one in which Nero heard about from Actium, and responded to in a fairly benevolent way, but then a second one, possibly set on Nero’s orders, because allegedly the first one had given Nero the idea of how to clear out civic space for his new palace (Tac., Ann. 40).

[xxix] Locusta was a real person, but she held no official employment in the imperial household; allegedly Agrippina engaged a woman called Locusta to create the poison daubed on Claudius’s mushrooms (Tac., Ann. 66); she was also contracted to mix the poison that killed Britannicus (Suet., Ner. 47). She was executed by the emperor Galba in A. D. 68 (Dio  Cass., 63.3.4).

[xxx] Suet., Ner. 34. 4-5.