BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014

BBC Homepage

Entertainment Cult

Contact Us

The Romans

Production Code: M

First Transmitted

The Slave Traders - 16/01/1965 17:40

All Roads Lead to Rome - 23/01/1965 17:40

Conspiracy - 30/01/1965 17:40

Inferno - 06/02/1965 17:40


The four time travellers are enjoying a rare holiday, staying at a villa not far from Rome in the year 64 AD. The Doctor soon becomes restless and sets off to visit the city, taking Vicki with him. In their absence, Ian and Barbara are kidnapped by slave traders.

Having been mistaken for the famous lyre player Maximus Pettulian and asked to perform at the Emperor Nero's Court, the Doctor has to devise ever more elaborate schemes to avoid revealing that he cannot actually play the instrument.

Ian meanwhile becomes a galley slave, while Barbara is sold to Nero's slave buyer Tavius at an auction in Rome. Ian and a fellow slave named Delos escape from the galley when it is wrecked in a storm and make their way to Rome to try to find and rescue Barbara.

There they are recaptured and forced to fight as gladiators in the arena. Events reach their climax when, by accidentally setting light to the Emperor's plans for the rebuilding of Rome, the Doctor gives him the idea of having the city razed to the ground. Nero plays the lyre while Rome burns, and the Doctor and Vicki and a reunited Ian and Barbara make their separate ways back to the villa.

Episode Endings

Resting overnight at a house in Assissium, the Doctor attempts to play the lyre but manages only a few discordant notes. He chuckles to himself, unaware that the mute assassin Ascaris, who earlier murdered Maximum Pettulian, is entering the room through a curtained entrance, a sword in his hand.

Ian and Delos are imprisoned and faced with the prospect of being trained to fight as gladiators in the arena - but against what? Suddenly they hear a ferocious roar, and when Ian looks out through the cell bars he sees a pride of hungry lions roaming about a compound. Horrified, he turns away.

Ian and Delos are reluctantly fighting each other in the arena. Ian suddenly loses his balance, giving Delos the upper hand. As the Greek holds his sword to Ian's neck, Nero gives the command to cut off his head.

The Doctor tells a confused Ian that the TARDIS has materialised for a split second and become imprisoned by a force from which it cannot break free. Something, somewhere, is slowly dragging them down. Ian asks 'Dragged down? To where?', but the Doctor can only return his companion's stare.



Whitehall farces.

The Emperor's New Clothes.

Dialogue Triumphs

Nero : "I have a little surprise for you. Guess what it is."

The Doctor : "Now, let me think. You want me to play in the arena?"

Nero : "You guessed."

The Doctor : "It's no problem at all. After all, you want to do your very best for your fellow artists: why not the arena?"

Nero : "Yes, yes, of course. That is exactly right."

The Doctor : "Well, I promise you, I will try to make it a roaring success."

Nero : "You'll have to play something special, you know."

The Doctor : "Of course, of course. Something serious, yes. Something they can really get their teeth into."

Nero : [Muttering] "You can't know, you can't. I've told no-one."

The Doctor : "Caesar Nero. I've always wanted to put on a good show; to give a great performance. After all, who knows, if I go down well, I might even make it my farewell performance. You see, I've always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste, generally considered as palatable, hmm?"

Nero : "They wouldn't let me build my new Rome. But if the old one is burnt... If it goes up in flames they'll have no choice. Rome will be rebuilt to my design! Brilliant! Brilliant!"

Ian : "I've got a friend who specialises in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way."

Nero : [On the Doctor's silent pretend harping] "He's all right, but he's not all that good."

Double Entendre

Nero : "Close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise!"


The TARDIS can take off from any angle.

The Doctor can fight, and enjoys pugilism, but he can't play the lyre.

Vicki's no good at dressmaking, but has a good grasp of history.


Changing History


Environs of Rome, July 64 AD.


The Doctor has been to Rome before. He once taught the Mountain Mauler of Montana. He also gave Hans Anderson the idea for The Emperor's New Clothes.


There is a slapstick fight scene between the Doctor, aided by Vicki, and the mute assassin Ascaris, which ends with the latter falling from a first floor window not to be seen again...

The Doctor convinces Nero and his courtiers that he is a skilled lyre player, without ever playing a note - a scene that pays homage to Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 story The Emperor's New Clothes.

The part of Tigilinus was expanded in late rewriting of the scripts to incorporate that of another minor slave character. Similarly the slave trader Sevcheria was 'promoted' after the first episode to become the captain of Nero's guards, originally envisaged by Spooner as a separate individual.


It was new story editor Dennis Spooner who wanted to make The Romans an overtly humorous story. (It was producer Verity Lambert's idea to do a story in this vein to try to extend the series' dramatic range - although Spooner was certainly no stranger to comedy and so ideally suited to write it.)


Ian and Barbara have a plastic lined fountain.

Nero pays his fire starters in metal washers.

Historically, Nero was in Actium, and the fire was almost certainly an accident.

Nero was 26-28, not middle aged, and Locusta, though real, was not an 'official prisoner'.

The swords aren't the right shape, and wouldn't have been used with nets.

Cast & Crew


The Doctor - William Hartnell

Barbara Wright - Jacqueline Hill

Ian Chesterton - William Russell

Vicki - Maureen O'Brien

1st Man in Market - Ernest Jennings

2nd Man in Market - John Caesar

Ascaris - Barry Jackson

Centurian - Dennis Edwards

Court Messenger - Tony Lambden

Delos - Peter Diamond

Didius - Nicholas Evans

Galley Master - Gertan Klauber

Locusta - Ann Tirard

Maximus Pettulian - Bart Allison

Nero - Derek Francis

Poppaea - Kay Patrick

Sevcheria - Derek Sydney

Slave buyer - Edward Kelsey

Stall holder - Margot Thomas

Tavius - Michael Peake

Tigilinus - Brian Proudfoot

Woman Slave - Dorothy-Rose Gribble


Director - Christopher Barry

Assistant Floor Manager - Valerie Wilkins

Associate Producer - Mervyn Pinfield

Costumes - Daphne Dare

Designer - Raymond P Cusick

Fight Arranger - Peter Diamond

Film Cameraman - Dick Bush

Film Editor - Jim Latham

Incidental Music - Raymond Jones

Make-Up - Sonia Markham

Producer - Verity Lambert

Production Assistant - David Maloney

Special Sounds - Brian Hodgson

Story Editor - Dennis Spooner

Studio Lighting - Howard King It is unknown who handled the lighting for The Slave Traders. Howard King was due to do so (as for the rest of the story) but was on sick leave with flu.

Studio Sound - Richard Chubb

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Delia Derbyshire

Writer - Dennis Spooner

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'I'll have you both killed over and over again!' Great Nero, good jokes, jolly atmosphere, marred by hints of historical realism. Barbara and Ian frolic around the villa in very post-coital fashion, blissed out on wine. The scene where Nero poisons his annoying slave, Tigilinus, is a delight. Being a comedy, Hartnell shows the talent that got him the part. His trouncing of the assassin is lovely.

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

The Romans, although likewise directed by Christopher Barry, is a very different style of production from The Rescue, relying far more heavily than any previous Doctor Who story on the use of humour to complement the drama. The four-parter that Dennis Spooner came up with is an amusing romp through Emperor Nero's Rome, drawing heavily on the traditions of farce but still having its serious moments, such as the scene where the slave-master Tavius is revealed as secretly being a Christian.

It has indeed been argued by some reviewers that The Romans' reputation as a 'comedy story' is not entirely justified, and that the humour is largely confined to its third episode, Conspiracy. David Auger, writing in The Frame No. 16 dated November 1990, drew attention to the harrowing nature of many of the events depicted, and particularly those involving Ian and Barbara:

'The first episode features a lurking assassin who carries out a brutal murder and a group of unscrupulous slave traders who kidnap Ian and Barbara. The two school teachers are faced with the daunting prospect that... the Doctor might be forced to depart without them. Soon they no longer have even each other for comfort... as... Ian is purchased by a passing slave-buyer, leaving Barbara alone and distraught. It doesn't read like the plot of a comedy so far, does it?

'The situation for the two companions becomes even more dire in the second episode.'

John Peel, writing in Gallifrey Issue 13 dated winter 1980/81, shared Auger's view that the more overt humour in the story was to be found mainly in its third episode: 'Nero chases Barbara around his palace and attempts to seduce her. In the dodging in and out of doors, the Doctor and Vicki (both guests in the palace) narrowly miss seeing her... The [sequence] has [a] strong comic flavour to it..., but that is by no means true of the entire story. It provides light relief against the more horrific sequences - such as Ian chained in a galley, or threatened with being fed to the lions.'

'Such humour as there is [in the final episode],' noted Auger, 'is generally of a very dark nature; and the scene in which the Doctor teases Nero about the "roaring" fate the Emperor has waiting for him... is funnier than the events in the third episode because the comic element is kept under a tighter rein once again. The humour is complementing the drama, rather than the other way around.'

Ian K McLachlan, writing in DWB No. 130 dated September 1994, also argued that The Romans featured some unusually violent scenes: 'Nero, while comic, is not above killing. He causes one of his slaves to die by forcing him to drink from [a] poisoned chalice, and in a particularly nasty moment sticks his sword through the heart of one of his guards... having first convinced the viewer that it is Barbara he is about to kill.'

Although these points are largely valid, there is no denying that at the time of its original transmission The Romans seemed quite a radical departure from what had gone before, as is clear from the BBC's Audience Research Report on the final episode: '"This programme gets more and more bizarre; in fact it's so ridiculous it's a bore!", declared one of a number of viewers reporting who apparently agreed that Doctor Who was "suitable only for morons". Indeed, the conclusion of the adventure in ancient Rome, though not always provoking quite such stringent condemnation, found the majority of the sample audience in a carping mood.

It was evident that the sequence had often been a disappointment - some viewers alleged that, after a promising start, the story had steadily declined to a farcical and pathetic anticlimax, while others were "not keen on Doctor Who going historical"... On the other hand, there were complaints (though fewer) that there had been too much violence in this sequence, and that it was unsuitable for children. A fairly common criticism, however, was its lack of realism - everything, it was said, was "transparently phony".'

Revisionist analysis notwithstanding, The Romans remains one of the more humorous of the series' early stories. The depiction of Nero as a vain, comical oaf is in marked contrast to the serious, realistic portrayal of such historical figures as Marco Polo and Robespierre in the previous season; and it is somewhat difficult to come to terms with the Doctor engaging in near-slapstick fight sequences and reeling off a succession of excruciating puns.

William Hartnell seems to enjoy having lighter material to work with for once. 'Hartnell [is] at his best in The Romans,' commented Tim Archer on an internet newsgroup in 1997. 'He really takes on the foolish nature of the Doctor.' Another particular delight, as Auger observed, is the story's sympathetic depiction of the new companion, Vicki: 'Vicki's exuberant character fits more easily into Spooner's new format for the series than the more conventional Susan would have done. She acts as a good sparring partner for the Doctor, highlighting how much he has mellowed... The repartee between them is entertaining, especially near the end of the story when Vicki suggests that the history books are inaccurate as they don't mention the Doctor's involvement in the fire that destroyed Rome! It is a shame that in some later stories the writers would neglect Vicki.'

The issue of the story's historical accuracy is one on which a number of reviewers have commented. Martin J Wiggins, writing in Oracle Volume 3 Number 5 dated February/March 1980, found the story to be greatly lacking in this respect:

'[Nero's] love of art, and Greek art in particular, was what led to his law of 59 AD (five years before the story was set) outlawing the unhellenistic practice of killing defeated gladiators... And when the fire of Rome started, despite slanderous rumours of his responsibility, he was in Antium, more than thirty miles away...

'The reason for [these] errors is simply that Dennis Spooner [relied] on hearsay and the most biased ancient "authority" who ever wrote, Suetonius.'

This view has however been challenged by some other commentators, including Peel:

'In a recent book [Suetonius' Nero] by B H Warmington, Reader in Ancient History at the University of Bristol... I read: "The close similarity between Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, all of whom wrote independently of each other, is all the more striking in view of the different forms... There are few stories to the discredit of Nero which are not to be found in Tacitus as well as Suetonius, who is more likely to accept as truth what Tacitus has doubts about; an obvious case of this is the story that Nero set fire to Rome... Since we have no external control for judging the veracity of the stories, though some are so outrageous that Suetonius' inclusion of them can hardly be condoned... similar condemnation must fall on Tacitus, who is only superficially more fastidious." In other words, Suetonius does record some stories which are probably just scandal, but this is by no means the majority of what he wrote...

'On the subject of the fire [and] attempts to whitewash Nero (something that Warmington points out is futile and only works by discounting the facts), the book adds: "Only Tacitus suggests the possibility that Nero was not responsible... Nero's responsibility was accepted by the Elder Pliny... Tacitus appears to combine two versions, one of which stressed Nero's activities in organising the relief work."'

In the final analysis, regardless of the story's degree of success in educating the viewer about the realities of life in ancient Rome, it is for its innovative use of humour that The Romans will always be best remembered, and in this respect it represents a worthwhile attempt at finding new dramatic ground for the series to cover.

< The RescueFirst DoctorThe Web Planet >

This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy