Judge Neal Masri commands you to peel him a grape.
Our reviews of Rome: The Complete Second Season (published August 22nd, 2007), Rome: The Complete Series (published November 23rd, 2009), and Rome: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray) (published December 16th, 2009) are also available.
Every city has its secrets.
Rome upholds the tradition of HBO dramas such as The Sopranos, Deadwood, or The Wire with a sprawling cast and intricate storyline.
Facts of the Case
It is 52 BC. Four hundred years after the founding of the Republic, Rome is the wealthiest city in the world, a cosmopolitan metropolis of one million people and epicenter of a sprawling empire. The Republic was founded on principles of shared power and fierce personal competition, never allowing one man to seize absolute control.
Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds, Munich) is ending a years long campaign conquering Gaul. In the process of conquest, he has become rich and has honed a lethal army led by the thirteenth legion, a group of men willing to follow his every command. Two members of the fighting thirteenth, Lucious Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, Kingdom of Heaven) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson, King Arthur), are the central characters of the show.
Vorenus is a dutiful soldier and family man. He is respected by the men and by Caesar himself. Pullo is a womanizing, hard-drinking enlisted man. His fierce fighting skills and his rebellious streak make him popular as well. An uneasy relationship between Vorenus and Pullo begins when they are forced by circumstance to cooperate on a mission of great importance to Caesar.
Back in Rome, Casesar's niece, Atia (Polly Walker, Sliver), is a fiercely ambitious and cunning player in the Roman nobility. Along with Caesar's lover Servilla, we have two women who rival any man in the empire in shrewdness and ruthlessness. Atia's son (and future emperor of Rome) Octavian (Max Pirkis, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) is a preternaturally astute teenager with a keen understanding of Roman politics.
Caesar's main rivals are Brutus (Tobias Menzies, The Lowdown) and Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham, Layer Cake). Pompey is Co-Consul of Rome along with Caesar. The battle between Caesar and Pompey is one of wills and wits at first. Eventually, it comes to swords. Brutus's relationship with Caesar is much more complex. Caesar needs Brutus and his influential family to legitimize his reign but Brutus is a Republican who abhors Caesar's imperial ambitions. Their father-and-son relationship is a source of great internal conflict for both.
Caesar's power grab and its consequences for Rome are the backdrop against which all of the character conflicts occur. Politics, personal rivalries, friendship, and a couple of very Oedipal relationships are cleverly combined with historical fact to tell a unique tale of Rome at one of its most eventful periods. Rest assured, I have just scratched the surface here. There are plenty of characters and plot threads in this sprawling story that I have left for the viewer to discover.
This six-DVD set contains the twelve-episode run of Season One. Episode titles and original airdates are listed below:
• "The Stolen Eagle" (8/28/05)
I've seen my share of sword and sandal epics, but not until the joint HBO/BBC production of Rome did I feel that I was seeing ancient Rome as a living, breathing place. Like the best science fiction stories, Rome creates an immersive world all its own. This Rome is by turns dingy and grand, both familiar and alien. Above all, this Rome feels real. This being an HBO production, the sex and violence flow as freely as the wine in this version of ancient Rome. When you see a bull ritually slaughtered and pan down to a nude woman below bathing in its blood, you know this isn't your old-fashioned historical epic.
As in so many historical epics, the creators of Rome have cast mostly British actors. In an interesting move, all of the aristocratic characters speak with an educated and effete Brit accent while the plebeians have accents of the cockney variety. It turns out to be subtle but effective shorthand for establishing a character's rank in Roman society. Perfect casting and fine performances by the large cast make for some vividly drawn characters. By providing a cross section of Roman society, the producers have given us a good look at the widely varied lifestyles of Roman plebeians as compared with the nobility.
The relationship between Vorenus and Pullo is the heart of the show. The mismatched-partners dynamic between them feels a bit formulaic a the start, but the characters are so well portrayed that one can let this slide. In episode 11 a great crisis forces Vorenus to make a difficult choice regarding Pullo. I was surprised to be quite moved by what transpires. Making them the emotional center of the series was a great decision.
The closest thing we have to a villain is the deliciously conniving Atia. She uses equal parts feminine wile and political savvy as a backstage player in Roman politics. One of the main story threads follows her rivalry with Sevilla for the affections and attentions of Caesar. Their hostility towards one another is one of the fictional threads seamlessly woven into the historical facts of the story. The way their personal battle winds up affecting the Republic puts an interesting personal spin on the political events that transpire.
Even the most casual observers of Roman history know what awaits Caesar when the Ides of March roll around. Just in case you don't, I won't discuss it here. I will say that when Caesar faces his final confrontation with Brutus and the Senate, eleven hours of dramatic buildup pays off in spades. Special praise should go to Ciarán Hinds for his fantastic portrayal of Caesar. Hinds manages to package charisma, menace, intelligence, and charm in a performance that is simultaneously subtle and showy. I never expected to like a tyrannical dictator as much as I did this version of Caesar.
Speaking of dictators and politics, it would be tempting to read some modern day political allegory into Rome. I think this would be stretching things a bit. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the loss of freedom in the name of security are not new to our era. I would argue that societies have been making the same political errors over and over again since before the time of Caesar. Thankfully, the show does not waste time getting bogged down in politics. We see just enough Senate debate to know what's happening without getting sucked into the minutiae.
The historical and fictional story arcs are resolved in such a satisfying and seemingly final way that I'm not sure the creators have left themselves much wiggle room for continuation of the story. It seems this show was such a gamble financially and artistically, that the producers needed to make sure there was a satisfying wrap-up. Fear not though, a second season is coming.
As with most HBO series, production values for Rome are top notch. The producers wisely decided they could not outdo films like Gladiator or Troy for sweeping digital vistas or shots of huge CGI armies charging at each other. Instead, the reported $100 million budget was spent on the details that make this version of ancient Rome unlike any we've seen before. Every little element from the graffiti in public spaces to the small decorative touches in the homes rings true. There is a lived in look here that really sells this Rome as a sprawling urban and urbane place.
HBO continues their track record of excellent technical presentation. The surprisingly colorful world of Rome comes across well. My only gripe is that black levels in a couple of the early episodes are a bit problematic. Sound effects are not overly immersive, but we do have a fair amount of atmospheric surround effects. Dialogue is crystal clear. Music and sound effects both make good use of the subwoofer.
Four of the eight audio commentaries provided feature series creator Bruno Heller and series historical consultant Jonathan Stamp. Their commentaries are unfortunately plagued by a good deal of silent time. They are recorded together and the bulk of their commentaries focus on the historical accuracy of the series. There is also a bit too much time spent merely describing what is on screen. Two commentaries are given by the directors of episodes eight and nine, Steve Shill and Jeremy Podeswa respectively. The directors' commentaries are a bit more inclusive, covering character, historical, and technical aspects of the series. Seasoned director Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough) directed the first three episodes. It was a bit disappointing not to hear a commentary from him. The remaining two commentaries are solo efforts from actors Ray Stevenson (Pullo) and Kevin McKidd (Vorenus). Their contributions are obviously more focused upon their roles and anecdotes of filming. As a general rule, I have found that actor commentaries are better done in groups rather than alone. Since the relationship of Pullo and Vorenus is so central to the series, it would have been nice to hear the two actors together.
Each of the 12 episodes features a text commentary illuminating historical tidbits relating to the story. The main thing I took away from this commentary was that the creators of Rome sweated every detail in the creation of this show. Little historical touches such as the vagaries of the Roman diet (featuring delicacies like roasted dormouse or raw sheep testicles) show that great effort was made to be authentic. I enjoyed it more than most other text commentaries I have seen.
As is typical for HBO series on DVD, we have an additional disc devoted to special features. First up we have a making-of piece titled The Rise of Rome. It's a predictable blend of interviews with cast and crew spliced together with behind-the-scenes footage. The second featurette, When in Rome, is yet another paean to the series' historical accuracy. We get it, you did your homework. While not a waste of time, these featurettes repeat information given in the audio and text commentaries. The special features disc is rounded out with a 50 photo still gallery with some handsome production images.
This is the sort of television series that shines on DVD because it's rich and entertaining enough for multiple viewings. Rome enthralls because it doesn't simply exist to show off fancy sets, CGI cityscapes, and period costumes. Beneath the historical trappings, we have a compelling story filled with interesting characters. You've never seen a version of ancient Rome quite like this one. HBO has hit yet another home run.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In order for the same group of about ten core characters to be involved in all the historical events covered in Rome, the plot requires a few outlandishly implausible coincidences. There are also a couple of storylines that veer dangerously close to soap opera territory. I suppose that goes with the fiction territory in historical fiction. These story-telling elements are distracting at times, but certainly not enough to sink this fine series.
I come to praise Rome: The Complete First Season, not to bury it. It not only brings one of the greatest civilizations in history to life, it brings wonderfully realized characters to life as well. The fact that it was produced by HBO has allowed the creators to present a stark and uncompromising vision. Rome: The Complete First Season is a pitch perfect blend of history and fiction and it is exceedingly well done. The extras, while not outstanding, are nice to have. But, the real attraction here is the show itself.
Not guilty. Hail Caesar.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Commentaries by Bruno Heller and Jonathan Stamp on "The Stolen Eagle," "How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic," "Pharsalus," and "Kalends of February"
Review content copyright © 2006 Neal Masri; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.