They came; they saw; they conquered. They ordered 250 chain-mail tunics from India, and they sent Hollywood actors to boot camp. Yes, I’m talking about those canny strategists at HBO, the cable channel that—to steal a phrase from Julius Caesar—bestrides the narrow TV spectrum like a colossus. Having in the past captured a range of milieus with such blockbuster series as Six Feet Under (the world of undertakers), The Sopranos (the Mafia), and Sex and the City (New York sex-obsessed shopaholics), HBO is now tackling ancient history. A coproduction with the BBC, Rome recently kicked off its twelve-episode first season, a seductively lurid mix of real history—Caesar’s victorious return to Rome after subduing Gaul—and racy potboiler, with enough scenes of sex, conspiracy, and mayhem to entertain an army of off-duty legionnaires.

HBO is preening about the labor, erudition, and cash it funneled into this project: publicity materials trumpet the fact that Rome was filmed, well, in Rome, on the world’s largest standing set, with the hundreds of actors and extras wearing four thousand costume pieces, presumably including the hand-made armor.

The press releases particularly gloat about the historical verisimilitude of everything, right down to the graffiti in the streetscapes. I’m not saying the producers sought expert opinion for the myriad sex scenes (intercourse in brothels, in aristocratic and plebeian bedrooms; even the erotic life of Caesar himself). Still, all the actors in military roles did attend a boot camp that included sentry duty and confiscation of their cell phones.

Putting skepticism aside (Can your average viewer really appreciate all those scholar-certified textiles?), one has to admit that the meticulous research has given Rome a rich sonic and visual texture, packing in an almost distracting amount of throwaway detail. The initial battle and army-camp scenes in the first episode were accompanied by such a panoply of clanking sounds, I thought for a while the soundtrack was out of whack. Then I realized that life probably sounded like this when one was a Roman soldier, wearing breastplates and lugging around shields and pikes.

The eye has to process even more minutiae. When Mark Anthony (James Purefoy) casually bathes while granting an audience, his servant is scraping him with a strigil. And when Rome’s characters turn their minds to religion, as frequently happens, they participate in elaborate rituals staged in shadowy chambers, often using large quantities of—one hopes—fake blood. In one gruesome example, Caesar’s scheming niece Atia (Polly Walker, somewhat overplaying the penny-dreadful villainy) gets drenched in the liquid at the sacrifice of a garlanded cow, while temple attendants thrash about in an eerie dance nearby, cracking whips.

Some of the sacraments in Rome crop up in connection with a central character: Lucius Vorenus (the steely-jawed Kevin McKidd), an ace centurion who turns out to be a very pious fellow. In the drama’s principal plotline, Vorenus reluctantly grows close to his thuggish subordinate Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) during and after Caesar’s return from Gaul. Unfortunately, the association does not bode well for Vorenus’s fretful wife Niobe (Indira Varma), who—like most of the women in the series—ooks as if she has stepped out of an issue of Vanity Fair.

Despite the painstaking reconstruction of the nascent empire, Rome adheres on some level to a familiar modern genre: the buddy movie. From the first moments of verbal sparring between the duo, you can just tell that Vorenus and Pullo will gain a grudging appreciation of each other’s virtues—a development that creates a poignant counterpoint to the swelling enmity between Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) and Pompey (Kenneth Cranham). At the same time, the bond between the conservative Vorenus and the more easygoing, adaptable Pullo is frayed enough to parallel the tension within Rome’s institutions—the aristocracy dividing into pro- and anti-Caesar camps; the military struggling to keep order; the two sides plotting to control the funds in the Republic’s central bank. The trust between buddies is the fundamental building block of society, Rome implies, but in the long term those building blocks are likely to tumble.

The scenes in the Forum reinforce this theme, as the senators shed decorum over the Caesar issue, at one point yelling, booing, and stomping their feet. Inevitably, with characters referring to the Gallic campaign as an “illegal war” and leveling partisan critiques (“All the moderates follow you like sheep”), the brouhaha begins to resonate only too well with recent American political realities. As HBO’s scrupulously researched epic reminds us, the more things change, the more they remain the same—an ominous truth for America as superpower. After all, we know what eventually happened to the Roman Empire.

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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Published in the 2005-09-23 issue: View Contents
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