This HBO series created by Bruno Heller, William J. MacDonald and John Milius drew the same kind of fanfare Caesar received when he returned to Rome after a successful campaign against the Gauls. The show drew a respectable audience share, critics raved, and award voters handed "Rome" 14 of them, including seven Emmys. I loved "I, Claudius" when it aired on PBS in 1976 and couldn't wait to see "Rome." But with no high-end cable, I had to wait until the series until it came out on DVD and Blu-ray.
And all I can say is, wow.
"Rome" leaves a grand impression, starting with the Emmy-nominated title sequence paired with Jeff Beal's Emmy-nominated music. What follows are sets as decorous and garish as ancient Rome itself, whether they're virtual dioramas of patrician homes and the Senate or plebian apartments off narrow, crowded streets. From graffiti on the walls to the activities of daily Roman life, this well-researched show delivers an authentic and sensuous portrait of ancient Rome at the end of the Republic. Filmed in Italy, "Rome" also treats audiences to long shots of countryside and elaborate battles that we normally see in epic films, not television shows. As I watched, amazed at the scale and spectacle, I wondered how much this series cost. Turns out that Season 1 reportedly took $100 million to film. I'm not surprised. And I'm also not surprised that the people at HBO did the math and figured out that with three million fans, the network was spending $33 per audience member to put the show on the air. This, at a time when other networks are talking about canceling sitcoms because talk shows are cheaper to produce. No wonder filmmakers were told at the start of Season 2 that "Rome" was too costly and that it would be cancelled at the end of the second season. Like Caesar, "Rome" was a victim of its own ambition.
That, of course, is too bad. A "Rome" movie is rumored to be in development, but until then we have this fascinating two-season "history" that spans the period between Caesar's return from the Gallic Wars in 52 B.C. to Octavian and Mark Antony's fierce sea battle at Actium in 31 B.C.
What's commendable about "Rome" is that the patrician record that we got in "I, Claudius" is balanced by two fictional plebian characters based on ones mentioned in the book Caesar wrote on the Gallic Wars. One soldier, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) has a wife at home and a lifer mentality as a soldier, bursting with ideals of duty and loyalty, honor and country. The other, Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) is cruder, single, and the kind of man who would fight for pay or for raping privileges than for gods or country. But his character is as fascinating as Vorenus, partly because of superb acting but mostly because the scripts give each character arcs and thoughts that make us care about each man. The same is true of the patricians in the series, whether it's the powerful Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) and his rival, Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), or the women in their lives whose politics and sexual escapades are just as compelling. Far from cardboard characters, the main "players" in "Rome" have both flaws and virtues, weaknesses and strengths--and this is true of minor characters as well. The women are especially well drawn, with Indira Varma spellbinding as the unfaithful wife of Verenus, and noblewomen Atia (Polly Walker), mother of Caesar's niece and nephew, and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), Caesar's mistress, behave with the same delicious scheming as the characters we saw in "I, Claudius." Casting across the boards is excellent, with Gaius Octavian (Max Pirkis) and Senator Cato (Karl Johnson) particularly inspired.
The title credits featuring animated obscene graffiti warn that this show will feature ancient Rome as it really was: violent and sexual. And while there are bloody and sadistic scenes--like thumbs cut off, penises displayed in a pouch as souvenir, beatings, graphic battles, even skull surgery--and sexual scenes involving full nudity of both genders, "Rome" doesn't sensationalize. These elements are present because they were a part of Roman life. But the bulk of this series has to do with the characters and their individual journeys at a key point in ancient Roman history, when the last days of the Republic would yield a would-be king and finally the first of 12 great Caesars about which Suetonius would write--a book I highly recommend, if Roman history fascinates you. In fact, to better appreciate this TV series, I would suggest first reading Cicero's Selected Works, Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars, and Caesar's Gallic War for a horse's mouth history, and one of any number of books available on Daily Life in Ancient Rome. The filmmakers got it mostly right--though if you want to be trusting, you can get all the history you need by watching episodes with "All Roads Lead To Rome" pop-up track. Notice I'm not calling it a trivia track? That's because it's more of a pop-up history, with facts about daily Roman life ranging from coinage and the postal system to sexual or torturing practices. But let's be clear, here. "Rome" is not a history.
I urge readers to study Roman history and life in ancient Rome so you'll know when the series writers got a bit creative, as when they trot out a Cleopatra that's as far removed from historical accounts as can be. Revisionist history, or wild imagination? Either way, it intrudes on an otherwise reasonably accurate portrayal of the ancient world. Sure, there are anachronisms, but one gets the feeling that with ancient Rome and its span of centuries, what's a hundred years among friends? And by the time that this series marches toward its conclusion, we start to feel as if the suits upstairs may have suggested ways to save money, since historical scenes that called for epic scale are minimized late in Season 2, and Season 2 offered two fewer episodes. Those are the only complaints that I have, and they are dwarfed by the "wow" factor, because everything else is first-rate. Besides, the minute you introduce speculative fictional characters and put them in "Forrest Gump" historical situations, you're dealing in fiction, not history. The historically true aspects (of which there are plenty) just add color and viability to the narrative.
Here's a rundown on the episodes as they are described in a handsome faux-leather "book" that has 14 pages and holds 10 discs, each tucked into a page that has a slick no-scratch insert and a bookmark-style band that lists the episodes, with an actual cloth bookmark to help you remember which disc you played last:
1) "The Stolen Eagle." 52 B.C. Caesar has just conquered Gaul. Centurion Lucius Vorenus and Legionnaire Titus Pullo are enlisted to find the army's stolen gold standard.
2) "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic." Pullo spawns a melee that impacts the Pompey-Caesar standoff.
3) "An Owl in a Thornbush." Pompey's decision to temporarily abandon Rome to Caesar forces patrician families to choose sides.
4) "Stealing from Saturn." "Pompey maneuvers outside the city; Atia throws a party welcoming Caesar; Vorenus also hosts a fete.
5) "The Ram Has Touched the Wall." Vorenus reconsiders his career, while Atia schemes to separate Caesar from Servilia.
6) "Egeria." Anthony receives a tantalizing offer from Pompey; Atia tries to mend fences with Servilia.
7) "Pharsalus." Once again, Caesar and Pompey find their fortunes reversed. Atia enlists Octavia (Kerry Condon) to ask another favor of Servilia.
8) "Caesarion." Caesar arrives in Egypt with Vorenus and Pullo and forges an alliance with Cleopatra (Lyndsey marshal).
9) "Utica." Caesar returns to Rome in triumph; Vorenus braces for a showdown; Servilia attempts to unearth a secret about Caesar.
10) "Triumph." Caesar is anointed emperor amidst pomp and fanfare, while Vorenus and Pullo plan their futures in Rome's new order.
11) "The Spoils." While Pullo descends into Rome's netherworld, Vorenus reaps the rewards of his allegiance to Caesar.
12) "Kalends of February." Vorenus' defense of Caesar lands him in an unexpected position of power. Servilia hurdles the final obstacle in her ambitious revenge scenario.
1) "Passover." In the wake of Caesar's death, Mark Antony (James Purefoy) considers a move north, while Vorenus issues a curse he soon regrets.
2) "Son of Hades." Cleopatra arrives in Rome, to Atia's dismay; Octavian wins over the masses; Vorenus steps into Erastes' (Lorcan Cranitch) shoes.
3) "These Being the Words of Marcus Tullius Cicero." Mark Antony finds his plans derailed following Cicero's (David Bamber) message to the Senate.
4) "Testudo et Lepus (The Tortoise and the Hare)." Atia turns the tables on Servilia; Octavian wins a battle; Vorenus learns of his children's fate.
5) "Heroes of the Republic." Vorenus returns to the Collegium; two former adversaries patch up their differences; Atia welcomes home her son.
6) "Philippi." Two armies clash with the future of Rome at stake; Pullo is sent on a brutal mission.
7) "Death Mask." Servilia drives Atia to distraction; Octavian and Mark Antony forge new alliances, political and personal.
8) "A Necessary Fiction." Octavian proclaims a new era in Rome; Vorenus uncovers inner treachery behind a missing gold shipment; personal tragedy strikes Pullo.
9) "Deus Impeditio Escuritori Nullus (No God Can Stop a Hungry Man)." A crippling grain shortage in Rome triggers fresh hostilities between Octavian and Mark Antony.
10) "De Patre Vostro (About Your Father)." Marc Anthonoy and Cleopatra ponder a grim future; Pullo is sent to track down Vorenus and young Caesarion
For another take on the series, see David Van Der Haeghen's review of the "Rome" DVD.
Visually, the scenes themselves never live up to the promise of the title sequence, which pops out at you with all the clarity and vividness that Hi-Def has to offer. Don't get me wrong. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is by-and-large a good one, with strong enough black levels and naturalistic colors. But the picture is uneven from sequence to sequence, particularly in outdoor scenes in long shot or indoor scenes involving fire, all of which produce a little noise to go along with the thin layer of film grain that's more consistently seen. But none of it is so serious that it detracts from the lavishness of the production. It's still a decent-enough picture. There's more edge delineation and detail than the DVD offers; just don't expect showpiece quality HD. "Rome" is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is slightly better, with the English or German DTS-HD MA 5.1 featured audio delivering a nice, dynamic soundtrack that really comes to life with every clash of blade against blade. But even the scrawl of a pen is picked up. The level of ambient sound is such that, nicely balanced among the effects speakers, it helps foster that sense of reality that the filmmakers were trying to achieve. The bass is strong, too, though not rumbling. Additional soundtrack options are Spanish, Castilian, Polish, or French DTS Digital Surround 2.0, with a long list of subtitle options: English, English SDH, Spanish, French, German, Castilian, Polish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Greek, Hebrew, Portuguese, Romanian, and Turkish.
Where to begin? "Rome" is bursting with bonus features, the best of which (in my opinion) is the option to watch the series with that informative trivia track, "All Roads Lead to Rome." Some will grouse that they're not PIP, but frankly I like that they're so unobtrusive that you can get an education and not feel as if you're distracted from the series. Another similar feature is "Interactive Bloodlines," which gives you connections between characters if you get lost along the way though I found it far less useful.
The commentary tracks are another mixed bag. The best of the bunch (and the one to start with) comes on Disc II from Season 1, in which actor Stevenson (who plays Titus Pollo) delivers a commentary for "The Ram Has Touched the Wall" that touches on every aspect of what he experienced as Titus in this series, along with his take on elements of filming that more often come from directors. He proves that he has a good eye, and maybe should have been given an episode to direct. His commentary is far more interesting than the directors we hear from. Other commentaries: Executive producer and writer Bruno Heller is joined by consultant Jonathan Stamp for "The Stolen Eagle," "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic," and "Pharsalus." Director Steve Shill offers the commentary for "Caesarion," while Jeremy Podeswa handles the track for the episode he directed, "Utica," and Heller is joined by Alan Taylor for "Kalends of February." Not as good as Stevenson's but still worth listening to is McKidd's take on "The Spoils."
Season 2 commentaries feature Heller and Stamp on "Passover" and "De Patre Vostro (About Your Father," director John Maybury and Duncan (who plays Servilia) on "Death Mask," exec producer John Melfi and director Carl Franklin on "A Necessary Fiction," and Purefoy (who plays Mark Antony) on "Deus Impedito Esuritori Nullus (No God Can Stop a Hungry Man,"
Eight bonus features form the core of the remaining extras, each of them worth watching. "The Rise of Rome" is a 24-minute look behind the scenes at the birth of the series. Though obviously made to air as a teaser and spark interest in the show, it's still enjoyable after-the-fact. Those wanting more on historical accuracy will enjoy "When in Rome," which goes beyond those pop-ups to paint a more thorough picture of ancient Rome. Then comes "A Tale of Two Romes," with series historical consultant Jonathan Stamp offering his take on the period that the film covers. Both of these features run the same length as the first. Also appealing to history buffs will be a feature half that length on "Antony and Cleopatra," and a 21-minute feature on "The Rise of Octavian: Rome's First Emperor." For a look behind the scenes at the filming of Season 2 there's "The Making of Rome: Season II," and two "Shot X" features that break down the action for a key scene and battle. Rounding out the bonus features are teasers that aired for all of the episodes that really don't have a lot of value.
"Rome" is a majestic series, a historical soaper that draws on the facts of Roman life to make its case. Season 1 has stronger narration and storylines than Season 2, while the latter has more sex and violence. Together, they still make for pretty remarkable television.