Existing as the pinnacle of what HBO is capable of achieving in terms of quality entertainment, Rome was perhaps too good to be true. With an estimated total budget of $100,000,000, it was grossly expensive for its time. The attention to detail was apparent throughout the show’s two seasons, however, and while it was short-lived, it still remains one of the best shows HBO has ever produced. The quality of the show noticeably declined during the second season, although this can be fully explained by the fact that it was cut short. Originally planned to be five seasons long (the second ending with Brutus’ death, the third and fourth being set in Egypt, and the fifth portraying the rise of the Messiah), Rome was given just one shortened season to conclude the projected story after the expensive success of its first season. There have been various rumors over the years since the show concluded, concerning a possible movie being made to finish everything up. Sadly, this never came to pass, and probably never will. More detail about the production and ultimate fate of the show can be found in our article, Remembering Rome.
For now, however, we must content ourselves with what is available to us. The two seasons span a total of 21 years, beginning with Caesar’s victory in the Gallic Wars in 52 BC, and concluding with Octavian Caesar’s victory over Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BC. The two central characters are Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, both members of the famous Roman 13th Legion; Vorenus a First Spear Centurion, and Pullo a legionary. While these characters are no one of note historically (save being based on two briefly mentioned soldiers in Caesar’s notes), they have a dual purpose. Vorenus and Pullo are fascinating characters in their own right, and through their exploits we gain a rich insight into plebeian life in Rome. At the same time, however, their characters are used to react to and either benefit or suffer from certain major historical events, sometimes even being used to directly influence said events. The fact that throughout the series, Vorenus and Pullo succeed in rising far above the “plot device” moniker and become stupendously portrayed characters in their own right, is a testament to Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson, and the writers of the show. Their own interactions with happenings far greater than themselves matter.
On the topic of casting, Rome has quite a large ensemble cast, of which in my opinion there is only one (minor) weak link. My three personal favorite portrayals would be (in no particular order): David Bamber as Marcus Tullius Cicero, James Purefoy as Mark Antony, and the aforementioned Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo. Bamber is simply marvelous to watch, and it would be a disservice to his thespian skill to attempt to explain his work. The only recent portrayal of a character I would rank alongside his is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire. Purefoy perfectly captures the cold, bubbling menace of Antony, along with his utter devotion to Caesar and loyalty to his cause. Stevenson’s method is difficult to describe, as it is unique in that he simply seems so genuine – it’s as if he isn’t acting at all! Worthy mentions would be Polly Walker as Atia, Ciarán Hinds as Caesar, Tobias Menzies as Brutus, and Lyndsey Marshal as Cleopatra. Marshal being cast as Cleopatra was a topic of controversy at the time, as she wasn’t considered traditionally “beautiful” enough for the role. However, I thought that she captured the role perfectly; using her speech and body movement to allure rather than her good looks alone. The one weak link I mentioned is Camilla Rutherford as Jocasta. Her portrayal was quite over the top and unconvincing, and she stood out from the other characters for the wrong reasons. Luckily, she didn’t feature enough as to detract from the quality of the show. Also, on a side note, the recasting of Max Pirkis with Simon Woods as Octavian was quite jarring at first – both actors appeared as the same character in the same season – but necessary as a result of a lot of plot material having to be squeezed into season 2, necessitating Octavian to look as if he could demand respect. Both actors performed admirably, although I did prefer Pirkis in the role. Overall, the cast is very, very impressive and perhaps one of the most convincing casts in any show.
Episode-wise, Rome excels in quality. There is not one episode that can be considered “bad”; each one progresses the plot and offers significant character development. Of course, some of the episodes in season 2 are undoubtedly rushed, but that is not the direct fault of the producers. For this reason, however, season 1 is better overall than season 2. The conflict between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus is wonderfully developed, and thoroughly rewarding to follow until the end. In direct comparison to this, one can only imagine how well the war between Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony would have played out had the show been allowed to progress as planned. Alas, it too was given the short thrift, and instead we only saw Mark Antony in Egypt for a total of two episodes. Considering the quality of the scenes set in Egypt during these episodes, what we have missed out on it is lamentable.
In terms of great episode conclusions/cliffhangers, Rome has an abundance. My two favorites would have to be the ending of Kalends of February (the final episode in season 1), and the ending of A Necessary Fiction (the 8th episode in season 2). The juxtaposition of scenes happening simultaneously concluding Kalends and season 1 is a marvelous feat of editing. In the space of a few minutes, we are hit with a trio of punches, as we witness Caesar being murdered in the Senate House, Servilia gloating to Atia and Octavian over the murder as it is occurring, and Vorenus causing the death of Niobe over her adultery. On top of all that, we see Pullo and Eirene finally come to terms. Of all the people to get a happy ending, it happens to be Pullo. This becomes a common theme as the series continues. All of this combined makes great television. This is how you end a season. The ending of A Necessary Fiction, on the other hand, leaves more to the imagination. It begins with a shot of an eagle devouring a rat. The symbolism implied here is beautiful; the majestic Caesar catches and devours his prey with little effort. Next, we see Pullo take command of the Aventine, remaining loyal to Vorenus even in his absence, and fighting to uphold the will of his estranged friend.
The fight sequence that ensues is chaotic and well choreographed, and ends with a chilling shot of Pullo, axe raised, almost breaking the fourth wall with a battle cry. Following this, we see Mark Antony (soon to be the eagle’s prey) arriving in Alexandria. This short scene contains only two words of dialogue, yet carries a lot of weight. An armored Antony enters the throne room, seeking Cleopatra’s welcome. Seeing Caesarion on the throne, he is confused, until a voice offscreen calls “Antony”. We follow Antony’s vision and see Cleopatra, garbed in both shadow and a very revealing cotton dress, as she approaches him. Antony’s eyes slide down her alluring body. He grins and replies, “Cleopatra”. After a quick shot of Cleopatra offering a suggestive smile, the episode ends with a cut to black. Throughout this scene (and reprising once more in the credits), the score is beautiful, and one of the best tracks composed for the show. We know what comes next before viewing the next episode – the love affair of Antony and Cleopatra is one of the most famous in history. The nature of these final two scenes, in trusting a lot in the imagination of the fans, combined with the fact that the next episode begins a whole four years later, suggests that it was originally intended to end a season before the show was compressed.
In relation to costumes and sets, as a period drama, Rome is unrivaled by anything outside HBO, and perhaps contends only with Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire within HBO’s borders. The production value in the show is outstanding, and it is obvious that no expense was spared in ensuring the authenticity of ancient Rome. From the gritty rags of the plebeians to the exquisite, colorful togas of the patricians, everything looks so natural and real. This even filters down to the hairstyles, the most Romanesque of which is probably Cicero’s, as sported by David Bamber. The same goes for the sets, the most impressive of which is the forum. Having visited the real remains of the Roman forum a number of times, I can attest to the realism of it as portrayed in the show. The producers were really willing to go the extra mile in constructing the entirety of the forum, without relying on CGI, and it shows. No other show that comes to mind has been subjected to as much scrutiny by the production team as Rome has, and it is extremely difficult to attempt to pick out any anachronisms within the show’s 22 episodes. Despite the British accents, it really is as if we are looking at the real Rome.
Of questionable or “bad” decisions in the production of the show, Rome has next to none. Most of them are nitpicks and stem as a direct result of the series being shortened. A notable example of this is the seemingly random focus on Timon and the Jewish presence in Rome in the second season. This is a very interesting premise, yet unfortunately we get only a small number of scenes that end in nothing, as Timon and his family head for Jerusalem. Obviously we would have seen much more of the Jewish presence in Rome and Jerusalem had a 5th season happened, and thus seen more of Herod (played wonderfully by René Zagger in but a single episode). Instead, a small, almost irrelevant subplot involving Timon, his zealous brother, and a plot to kill Herod is all we were given. I think it may have been better to omit this arc, rather than attempt to shoehorn it in. Again, the negativity here is only as a result of the show being mercilessly shortened. A minor nitpick of an arc which occurs in the first season (and thus is not as a result of time and monetary constraints), is that I would have preferred if the political aspect of the plot to assassinate Caesar had not been as downplayed as it was. I felt that there was a slight overemphasis on the petty fight between Atia and Servilia as the motive behind his assassination, with too much emphasis on Servilia as the main instigator. Of course, the political aspect was present, but was often robbed of priority by Servilia’s hate for Caesar and his kin. However, every scene relating to this arc was top class, and if these are the only complaints one can find with the show, it really does speak to its quality.
Vorenus and Pullo. The two men around whom the entire show revolves, yet not to the detriment of historical accuracy. The two men who instantly come to mind when Rome is discussed. The two men who formed an unbreakable alliance over 21 years, surviving Caesar’s campaign in Gaul; recovering Caesar’s stolen standard; rescuing Caesar’s nephew from captivity; causing the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus; finding and returning the stolen Roman treasury; surviving the near decimation of Mark Antony’s forces at sea; locating and releasing the elusive and broken Pompey; liberating Cleopatra; surviving the arena to become heroes among the plebeians; ruling the Roman underworld; surviving the war between Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony after taking opposing sides; and successfully rescuing Caesar and Cleopatra’s bastard son from being murdered by Octavian. The fact that all of this is achieved by two men and is still plausible to the viewer is a testament to the show’s amazing writing and production. The outstanding chemistry between Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson mirrors the unbreakable friendship between Vorenus and Pull0, one that forms the backbone of Rome, directly to both its own benefit and the pleasure of the viewer.
The extra material contained in the box set itself is as rich and rewarding as the show itself, even when compared to box sets released today. Spread over a total of 10 Blu-ray discs, the bonus features include:
- 13 episode commentaries by the cast and crew
- “Interactive Bloodlines” – An interactive feature detailing the familial relations during episodes
- “All Roads Lead to Rome” – An interactive feature that displays trivial facts during episodes
- “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” – A short informative feature on the characters of Rome
- “The Rise of Rome” – A behind-the-scenes look at what goes into bringing Rome to life (cast, costumes, sets etc.)
- “Shot by Shot: Caesar’s Triumph” – A look at how this massive scene was created
- “Shot by Shot: Gladiator” – A look at how the arena scene was created
- “When in Rome” – A look at the historical tidbits in Rome (class, deities etc.)
- “A Tale of Two Romes” – An account of Rome’s history by producer Jonathan Stamp
- “The Making of Rome: Season II” – A look at new characters, and the differences between both seasons
- “The Rise of Octavian: Rome’s First Emperor” – Jonathan Stamp documents the ascension of Octavian
- “Antony and Cleopatra” – A look at the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra
Of these extra features, my favorites were “The Rise of Rome” and “When in Rome”. Both were generously informative and were definitely the most interesting. By and large, the episode commentaries were enjoyable, but I do wish that both Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd had featured in the same commentary, rather than going solo in separate ones. The same goes for James Purefoy; the commentary would have been more enjoyable if he had someone else to bounce off. All in all, the Rome box set is a must have for any HBO fan, or indeed any fan of history/entertainment. It is available to purchase through both the HBO Store and Amazon.