Visually stunning, superbly acted and brilliantly packaged, HBO's "Rome: The Complete Series" is without question a winner. The short lived but extremely popular and well-received television show is now out on DVD in a complete box set collection (previously, the two seasons were released independently) that will no doubt impress you from start to finish. Spread out over eleven jam-packed discs, "Rome" will leave an impression you won't soon forget.
As a series, this was an interesting partnership between Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), HBO and BBC. It brought production teams, funds and actors from multiple countries together and ended up with a culturally diverse approach to what was perhaps history's most well-known and powerful government. "Rome" pulled in high ratings wherever it was shown, and despite running only two seasons and twenty-two episodes, it received nominations and awards from the following entities between 2005 and 2008: Art Directors Guild, Directors Guild of America, Golden Globes, Satellite Awards, Screen Actors Guild, Visual Effects Society, Writers Guild of America, Emmys, British Academy Television Awards, Cinema Audio Society Awards and the Royal Television Society. Yeah, it was kind of a big deal.
Anytime a movie or television show uses a historical event or place to set itself up crosses my desk, I'm slightly skeptical. Is the series really about this event or place, or does it just use it and create some fake men and women who prance around, chat about other real events or places and ultimately encounter the big elephant standing in the corner? Movies like "Pearl Harbor" and "Titanic" immediately come to mind as examples. "Rome" does some of this, but not to the degree most films like to. Its specialty is historical authenticity, not necessarily historical accuracy. There's some overlap, and it's healthy to see the series take real persons from Roman history under its wing and utilize their documented actions in a new, but historically authentic, capacity. At times it's overdone, but after all, in its simplest form, this is drama.
The series is very, very good. I watched it all, every moment. I think its foundation lies with its characters. There are names you'll recognize without a doubt, such as Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), the violently ruthless but successful military leader. Caesar walks around the series like he owns the place, and that's because, for a time, he did. Mark Antony (James Purefoy) is in almost every episode, and despite his boyish good looks, was best known as a Roman general and politician who never looked back but always ahead. Gaius Octavian (Max Pirkis from the first season into the early second, Simon Woods from then on) undergoes a youth to adult transformation in just a few years after being named Caesar's top successor. There are others, but these names hold the most historical star power. All performances feel gritty and authentic as these men navigate complex Roman political processes and conspire with and against each other. Their interactions aren't horribly polished during the series, and they shouldn't be. I doubt there were back in the day.
The main attractions are two soldiers: Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Vorenus did some fighting for Caesar in Gaul, but few historically relevant details beyond this are known. Pullo is entirely fictitious. These men lead very different lives in the series, but develop an interesting friendship on the battlefield despite being so separate in so many regards. Vorenus is extremely religious, maintains that one day he'll return to his wife and children, detests dishonesty and will always do his sworn duty to his people, leadership and nation. Pullo is much rougher around the edges, evidenced by his frequent profanity, random sexual encounters, simple ignorance and desire to look out for himself long before anyone else. These fellows have some really interesting chemistry together. Whether or not they'll admit it, they need the other for support, stability and balance. They occasionally separate and get into their own unique trouble, but in the end, the series is really about their relationship and struggles to survive amidst many political and personal happenings. I didn't prefer one character over the other, but instead appreciated how well they complicated each other. As the series goes on, they begin to get each other's humor and develop personal attachments, not just military ones.
"Rome" has many things going for it. It's visually stunning, and features a very diverse blend of actual on-location scenes, well-dressed and decorated sets and computer generated long distance shots. The city itself is decently authentic, and the stone columns, tapestries and dwellings look like real thing. Locations don't look spotless, but instead like people live, work and exist there (which is good because, well, people actually did). All characters wear spectacular costumes that flow as they maneuver and distinguish the different social classes quite easily. There was significant attention to detail among the costume designers, and it showed in everything from robes to sandals to necklaces to belts. The props throughout "Rome" look equally authentic, be it a sword, shield, water pitcher or candle. As a package, it's extremely convincing and a visual delight.
Historical accuracy is another issue all together. Purists will tell you the show plays up Vorenus and Pullo more than it should, and that Caesar was slightly shorter and had less hair. The Senate sessions also feel a bit too rehearsed, as characters vocalize their favor or disapproval at just the right moment. There's little spontaneity in those scenes, but the show makes up for it in other ways. Deceit and corruption run rampant in "Rome," an accurate pull from history's events and pages. The series also illustrates how complex the relationship web and family tree were among Rome's diverse hierarchy. I had to keep the full color insert that came with the set and had mug shots for all main characters by my side while watching the episodes, and the series is likely less confusing than actual Roman history.
Below is a disc by disc and episode by episode breakdown.
DISC ONE: Season One
"The Stolen Eagle" – "Rome" begins in 52 B.C., after Caesar has completed his Gaul conquest. Two courageous soldiers, Centurion Lucius Vorenus and Legionnaire Titus Pullo, are dispatched to find a golden eagle standard stolen from Caesar's forces. Meanwhile, Rome is showing cracks, complete with Pompey Magnus, Caesar's once trusted friend and ally, getting under the table suggestions from the Senate on how to address Caesar's impending return.
"How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic" – Vorenus spent eight long years fighting with Caesar against all enemies, and returns home to his wife and children. They react with some interesting shock value, and must get to know the man they thought perished long ago in battle. Pullo also is adjusting, but not as easily, evidenced by drunken bar fights and bizarre sexual encounters. While Caesar starts to get his forces together to return to Rome, Mark Antony becomes a Senate tribune representing the people's interests.
DISC TWO: Season One
"An Owl in a Thornbush" – Pompey has turned against Caesar, but in order to prepare to overthrow his powerful forces, he quickly orders a retreat from Rome, indirectly forcing citizens to leave and join him, or stay and side with Caesar (who's been deemed an enemy by the Senate). Atia begins living vicariously through those who do her dirty work, and through her children. Vorenus and other scouts are perplexed when no one seems to challenge them as they get closer to Rome.
"Stealing from Saturn" – Caesar arrives in Rome, and Atia hosts a welcome home festivity in his honor. Vorenus tries to distance himself from soldiering and becomes a merchant, and Pullo, loaded with riches after stumbling on an abandoned cart packed with gold Pompey took from Rome's hidden vaults, returns it to Caesar. With new wealth and motivation, Caesar sends a truce offer to Pompey, knowing he will refuse it.
"The Ram Has Touched the Wall" – Pompey responds to Caesar's offer with his own, and Mark Antony recommends simply hunting down Pompey's untrained and vulnerable forces instead. Vorenus is tempted to return to soldering by Mark Antony, especially after his merchant attempts do not pan out. Pullo is asked by Atia to train Octavian, Caesar's nephew, in combat. Atia is also planning to sustain her power and prominence, with or without Caesar.
DISC THREE: Season One
"Egeria" – With Caesar and his men leaving Rome to pursue Pompey, Mark Antony is in charge. Eventually, he gets word Caesar's forces have weakened and he's now being hunted. Mark Antony, despite being tempted by Atia and Pompey to turn against Caesar, remains loyal and scrambles his men to action. Pullo leads Octavian to his first sexual encounter, while Vorenus and his wife Niobe reconcile their issues and share a passionate moment.
"Pharsalus" – Despite Mark Antony's pep talks, his men are overthrown by nature in the Adriatic Sea. Vorenus and Pullo battle for survival, while in Greece Caesar is attacked by Pompey, only to have the move totally backfire. Pompey now needs reinforcements to retain his position. Meanwhile, Atia uses Caesar's niece, Octavia, to play nice with Servilia, a Pompey supporter and equally wealthy woman.
"Caesarion" – Now in Egypt, Caesar gets to Alexandria and meets Ptolemy XIII. He soon forms an alliance to preserve his legacy and agrees to share some incentives with the Egyptians. Vorenus and Pullo are called on to help liberate and track down Ptolemy's sister, Cleopatra.
DISC FOUR: Season One
"Utica" – Caesar has defeated multiple obstacles standing in his way, including a Senatorial abandonment, and with some Egyptian support, gets back to Rome in one piece with a hero's welcome. Vorneus and Pullo seek some revenge on a local thug, Erastes, and get some surprise attention from Caesar in the process. Servilia, proving she is just as cunning as Atia, also tries to use Octavia to blackmail Caesar.
"Triumph" – The same senate that labeled Caesar a traitor and enemy now announces him Emperor. Caesar proclaims the war over and calls for a five day festivity. Pullo considers, of all things, a pastoral future now that his soldier commitment is finished, while Vorenus wants to run for Municipal Magistrate and go political. Octavian has grown up considerably by this point, and retrieves his sister Octavia from a mourning period, while Popmey is invited back to Rome, with revenge in mind.
DISC FIVE: Season One
"The Spoils" – Pullo experiences some interesting moments during his transition to religious life, and Vorneus works to honor and praise veteran soldiers on Caesar's behalf. Caesar notices this noble action, and as praise and thanks, invites him and Niobe to Atia's latest party (she's managed to stay on Caesar's good side). Meanwhile, Marcus Brutus battles some internal demons and begins to struggle with his role under Caesar's new reign.
"Kalends of February" – Pullo and Vorenus are now dubbed national heroes by the Roman rank and file. Caesar rewards them, even though they belong to a class he'd typically punish and belittle. Pullo shows up at Vorenus' home once more after Caesar chooses to mix up the Senate with some new faces, despite what old, purist members think.
DISC SIX: Special Features
Three items on disc six, including a still image photo gallery, a featurette titled "When In Rome" that details the attention paid to historical authenticity versus historical accuracy, and a program dubbed "The Rise of Rome" that critically looks at how the series makers built the city, sets and locations they used to create this magnificent looking series.
DISC SEVEN: Season Two
"Passover" – Caesar has been murdered at season one's end, and Mark Antony is in power in Rome. His desire is to flee and go north, but Octavian is named Caesar's heir in his will, and persuades the army to stay and conspire against Brutus and his forces. Vorenus hits the breaking point after his wife's death, and curses his children away, leaving him in despair and frustration.
"Son of Hades" – Cleopatra shows up and wants her son, Caesarion, dubbed honorable by Mark Antony, who has ordered Vorenus and Pullo to seize Aventine Collegium. Also, young Octavian decides to take matters into his own hands and bypass Mark Antony's unwillingness to perform Caesar's dying wishes. Big mistake.
DISC EIGHT: Season Two
"These Being the Words of Marcus Tullius Cicero" – Brutus is struggling to get money and raise a strong opposition to Mark Antony, who's busy looking at his new military headquarters locations: Macedonia or Gaul. With little warning, Cicero sends a messenger and throws support to Octavian instead. All this while Vorenus makes trouble in the streets and confronts Pullo about a personal issue.
"Testudo Et Lepus (The Tortoise and the Hare)" – Octavian proves to Mark Antony that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, and neither really pays much attention to Brutus and Cassius who are plotting against them. Pullo has learned just what happened after Vorenus cursed his children, and the pair leave the army to pursue them and save their lives.
DISC NINE: Season Two
"Heroes of the Republic" – Vorenus and his children return to Rome and go through a religious cleansing ritual for prior sins. Octavian takes over and gets slightly more power hungry than is really good for anyone, and after he drops a bombshell or two on the Roman Senate, he seeks out Mark Antony because he wishes to remain more powerful than Brutus and Cassius.
"Philippi" – A new alliance severely weakens the relationship between Brutus and Cassius. Vorenus and Pullo are both given lists with names due for execution by their swords and hands. Oh yeah, there's a really good battle between Mark Antony and Octavian's forces and Brutus and Cassius's forces on the plains of Philippi.
DISC TEN: Season Two
"Death Mask" – Octavian and Mark Antony finally have a conversation about money, now that they're safely in power. As an outsider puts Pullo in an awkward position, Octavian concocts a public wedding as a political statement.
"A Necessary Fiction" – Practically drunk with power, Octavian proclaims a new era of virtue throughout Rome. But his new mandate is very difficult for anyone to obey consistently. Meanwhile, a gold shipment is stolen, and Vorenus is asked to track it down. Pullo experiences a serious personal tragedy, and lashes out at vicious henchmen sent to do away with him as a result. Octavian courts a woman, and to celebrate, gives Mark Antony an ultimatum.
DISC ELEVEN: Season Two
"Deus Impeditio Esuritori Nullus (No God Can Stop a Hungry Man)" – When a grain shortage occurs, Mark Antony and Octavian clash, a sign reflecting something much bigger happening between the pair. Octavian eventually turns against Mark Antony with a little assistance, and battle is inevitable.
"De Patre Vostro (About Your Father)" – The series climax sees Mark Antony head back to Alexandria and get into some not so good practices with Cleopatra. Octavian's army pays him a friendly visit, and Vorenus attempts to flee with Cleopatra's son Caesarion. Octavian orders Pullo to track down the pair and kill the boy. The soldiers, once enemies, then friends, now foes, meet in Rome's Collegium, just as Octavian's victory against Mark Antony is being mildly celebrated.
"Rome" is also loaded with sex, violence and betrayal. There is frequent nudity throughout, no shortage of blood, stabbings, gore and battles, plus multiple private conversations where both men and women are looking to conspire against each other for their own personal advancement. What's funny is how such happenings still linger in our actual reality today, making you wonder just how far we've really come.
This is the most cinematic television experience I can recall, and the attention to detail is obvious. Well worth your time investment, "Rome" reminds me of a bag of potato chips. It's really hard to take just one and leave it be.
Superbly vibrant and crisp, all episodes are super strong. I felt the shadow use and lighting quality were equally wonderful in morning, afternoon and evening scenes. The transfer might look like 16x9 (or 1.33:1), but it feels more like 1.78:1. There's no question it's been enhanced, and rather than look overdone, it simply looks brilliant. Natural colors mesh with the show's sets and scenes flawlessly, adding to just how convincing the city as a whole looks and feels on the screen.
Three soundtracks are offered: an English 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound, a French 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo, and a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The English 5.1 is loud, clear and easily audible. No single noise, be it something in the foreground or background, dominates, and this allows the sounds to blend with the picture and events rather than simply add to or subtract from them. Musical selections are near perfectly placed, and have no cracks or imperfections either. Subtitles in English, French and Spanish are also available. I suggest you turn up the speakers when you watch an episode. It will enhance the experience, without a doubt.
Thirteen of the twenty-two episodes come with an audio commentary featuring actors, producers, directors or other series staff. Disc six is devoted entirely to bonus material, but you'll find other tidbits spread out among the entire set, including a character introduction, battle sequence breakdowns, historical perspectives on the distinctions between slaves and hierarchy, a look at Octavian's real rise to power, and some insight on just what went down between Cleopatra and Mark Antony. It's a very diverse yet balanced offering I also found entertaining, especially considering the show makes you wonder about historical connotations and accuracy due to its strong production quality.
A Final Word:
"Rome" is among the best television shows I've ever seen. Some expressed unhappy feelings when it was cut off after just two seasons, but I doubt this was a cheap series to produce and actually create. The network triangle responsible for its foundation ensured its meticulous attention to detail and strong, healthy commitment to authenticity, helping to formulate a well-made and super powerful look into history's best known government empire.