In Season 1 of Versailles, references to Greece and Rome are connected respectively to themes of royal aspirations and self-conception on the one hand and the conspiracies and paranoia to which they give rise on the other. Clichés of Hellenic greatness inspire Louis XIV’s (George Blagden) sense of what he wants to create in the world. Louis, the future ‘Sun King’, introduces his vision for Versailles’ future status as follows (S1E1): “Greeks built temples as dwelling places for their gods. France will build a temple to the sun and for the people.” At the beginning of the series, Versailles is a hunting lodge, albeit a lavish one, built by King Louis’ father. The son means to transform it into the signature royal monument of France under his reign.
Mid-season, as he encounters resistance among the workers at Versailles who complain of insufficient attention to their working conditions and pay (as resources are diverted to a war against Spain), Louis utters this complaint (S1E6):
“By the age of thirty Alexander the Great created an empire stretching from Greece to India. But without his men beside him, King Darius would have driven him into the sea. I will not be pushed into the sea by a builder on a scaffold.”
There are two possible metaphorical identities for the workers in this comparison. The workers are either beside Louis/Alexander advancing his conquests or they are Darius, pushing an abandoned Louis into the sea. The analogy betrays Louis’s blindspot where the people’s sense of their own wellbeing is concerned. He speaks of Alexander’s war of conquest, but his workers are all too aware that they are receiving inadequate care and compensation exactly because Louis is pushing the project on which they are working at the same time as he is waging an extremely expensive war.
The King’s comparison to Alexander makes no room for this reality. At the same time, it is to Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan), his chief of secret police, that the King delivers this comparison. Implicitly, the inability of Louis’ lieutenants to contain the situation also aligns them with Alexander’s men, without whom the young Macedonian king could never have vanquished Darius. Like much in the series, especially in its later seasons, this remark anticipates the concerns of the French Revolution. By introducing the relationship between the Macedonian Alexander and his army into his conversation with Marchal, however, Louis does acknowledge the imperial work that others must do in order for him to attain his ambitions of Franco-Hellenic greatness.
The theme of Socratic inquiry to one’s identity tends emerges when circumstances compel the King to rethink his approach to achieving this ideal. In the second episode of season 1, Louis learns that his newborn daughter is not in fact his biological child, but the offspring of an adulterous union between his wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse (Elisa Lasowski), and Prince Annaba (Marcus Griffiths) of Assinia (in Côte d’Ivoire). Putting her adultery in the context of international relations and the threat he perceives to his realm if he were exposed as a laughing stock to the monarchs of Europe, he denounces his queen as a traitor (S1E2): “Do you know what Socrates had to say about marriage? He said: “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. Get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher. I must tell you madam, I am feeling very philosophical.” The baby is black and so her identity cannot be immediately redefined. After consultation, the child is spirited away and kept in safety for the time being.
The father of his wife’s child is visiting in order to discuss giving France preferred trade privileges. After consultation his valet and advisor Alexandre Bontemps (Stuart Bowman), Louis decides not to act punitively toward any of the principal figures involved in the adultery. Keeping trade negotiations in view, the King confronts the father and parlays his tolerant — read philosophical — perspective on the adultery and the fate of the child into an example of how the France of his reign differs from all others past and present. Among other benefits, Prince Annaba will be allowed to take the child home with him. Impressed, Annaba agrees to Louis’ offer.
An epilogue to this secret negotiation, suggests that strategic motives aside, Louis is less different from other kings than he would like to pretend. Dr. Masson (Peter Hudson), the physician who delivered the child, immediately perceives the dangers of the situation and fears for both his life and that of his daughter Claudine (Lizzie Brocheré) who assisted him. Masson assumes that the King will have any witnesses to the birth murdered to cover up the scandal. Thinking as quickly as he can, he explains to Louis that the baby’s skin color must be the result of the Nabo, the Queen’s Moorish jester, who is black, giving her a “particularly penetrating look,” thus impacting the fetus’ skin color. Incidentally, this explanation seems to indicate that Nabo is a male charactered played by a female actor.
Masson’s motive, of course, is not to convince the King, but to perform for this royal audience his ability to project confidence in a medically explicable reason other than adultery. After Louis’ successful presentation to the child’s father, revelers on the palace grounds discover Nabo’s corpse. The implication is that the King accepted doctor’s immediate medical explanation as sufficient to spare the lives of everyone in the room who witnessed the child’s skin color at the moment of birth, except for Nabo, whom Masson’s diagnosis holds responsible for the child’s skin color.
Anyone not in the room believes the child white and stillborn, but for other audiences it suggests one or more of three things. First, for those who were in the room and anyone who learns from rumor of a black baby born to the queen, Nabo’s murder stands as a royal seal on the official/unofficial cause of it in the jester’s gaze. Secondly, apart from Louis’s attempt to play the part of a Socratic husband in his male monarch to male monarch conversation with Annaba, the murder stands as the King’s decidedly non-philosophical response to the Queen who loved Nabo and found in his company the only comforting remnant of her life in Spain. Third and finally, Louis’s persuasive argument to Prince Annaba shows that he can take adultery in stride when he needs to do, but it implies something more to Versailles‘ television audience. It suggests that his France may be a place where a black body won’t be destroyed because a white mother gives birth to a black child. Nabo’s murder shows otherwise. The transgression was important enough to Louis that he substituted and killed another black body (Nabo) for the one he spared (Annaba).
At the conclusion of S1E2, Louis reveals another direction in which he means to take the theme of discovery of identity. He is already concerned to find out who is conspiring against him. Accordingly, he publicly exposes the secretly villainous and outwardly suspicious and unappealing Montcourt (Anatole Taubman) whom he suspects of being in league with a foreign conspiracy against his life. Louis’s tactic, however, is not to expose Moncourt as murderer and accomplice to murder, but as lacking the aristocratic lineage required to attend the royal court. Louis uses the occasion to announce a new policy of demanding documentary proof of ancestry from all nobles at court. While denouncing Montcourt, Louis declares ominously, “We shall all soon discover who we are.” Speaking privately to Bontemps, the King says: “I will not be king of Paris. I know who I am.” “Who is that […]?” asks Bontemps. “I am Louis XIV, King of France. Now these nobles must prove their worth to me.” By episode 8, such certitude is in short supply. When Louis wistfully recalls to his longtime friend Rohan (Alexis Michalik) a shared past when (S1E8), “We knew who we were.” The audience is a aware at this point that Rohan is one of the deadliest conspirators against Louis.
The Latin language and ancient Rome play slightly different roles. In S1E5, Louis enters the room and notices that his lover Henriette (Noémie Schmidt) — also his brother’s wife — is reading a book. He asks her if it is a diverting volume. She replies that it is not and holds it so that Louis can see only its cover. She reports that Philippe (Alexander Vlahos), her husband, brought it back from the front and gave it to her as a gift, though it had originally been a present for his same-sex lover, the Chevalier de Lorrain (Evan Williams). Louis takes it from her and pages through it, allowing the audience to notice both that it is written in Latin and that there are symbols on the upper right corners of its pages. It appears to be a book of Psalms, an unlikely gift for Philippe to give to his lover. With considerable suspicion, Louis asks Henriette where his brother found the book. The scene then changes abruptly. Shortly after, Marchal announces that he has identified the code, to which the symbols in the book belong, as a rare, almost forgotten “Cistercian codex” from the Low Countries.
This appears to be a mistaken usage in the script. Or, if not a mistake, then an invented use meant to sound archaic and technical. The word code does derive ultimately from the Latin ‘codex’, but the latter in itself refers only to the physical form of a book; i.e. leaves of whatever material sown together, rather than, for example, rolled up as in the case of a scroll). Marchal nonetheless uses the term as though it means ‘code’. He is holding a pamphlet consisting of the code as he speaks, so he is not in fact holding a codex per se (i.e. a book). Marchal identifies the psalm book as coming from the Spanish Netherlands, indicating that the conspiracy originates in the same place.
The use of the Latinized word ‘codex’, the a Latin psalm book, and the tying of this part of the storyline to the solitary figure of Marchal who tends to lurk about in dark passage ways, ill-lit chambers, where he occasionally carries out torture, all evoke a generalized medieval air, akin to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986), a film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel of the same title. In it, a monk must solve a string of murders at a remote monastery that involve codes, ancient books, and apocalyptic symbols with seemingly Satanic implications. Marchal conducts this work with tools, both in terms of codes and torture devices, that belong to or seem most at home in the medieval world. Indeed, his character seems a blend of The Name of the Rose‘s Brother William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and the sadistic inquisitor, Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham). Yet, Marchal himself may suggest that his self-conception is aligned with the ancient Roman, rather than medieval, world.
In S1E6, Marchal is examining the psalm book in question and taking notes, when Béatrice de Clermont (Amira Casar), his lover and (as it turns out) the arch-conspirator against Louis in season 1, enters his chamber. She takes note of what she sees, even as Marchal tries to obscure what is on his desk. When asked what he is reading, he lies, saying that it is a treatise on espionage in the Roman Empire. Béatrice glimpsed the notes on his desk, however, and realizes that their code has been broken.
The title that Marchal thinks to give to the book Béatrice asks him about reflects his self-conception. It invokes the Roman Empire in the way that Louis makes various Ancient Greek associations into emblems for himself. In Rome, Marchal chooses an empire whose name is a watchword for imperial dominance. His king prefers to think of reign in terms of radiant Hellenic images. Between Louis and Marchal arises the paradox that the Romans were the conquerors and oppressors of the Greeks, but it is henchman Marchal’s Roman identity that proves the first and last means of securing Louis’s Greek one.