“Gallia est omnes divisa in partis tris.” Sad to say, not too many of our contemporaries know where that line comes from. ’Twas a time, though, when you could ask any educated gent about his high school experience and, if nothing else, he would at least recall being forced to read aloud from Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. These days, though, even if folks aren’t inclined to get acquainted with Gaul’s three parts, they’d still do well to get acquainted with all 12 parts of HBO’s new series Rome.
For one thing, Rome doesn’t disappoint in the historical accuracy department. Even details that will soar over the heads of most audience members (such as Cato’s penchant for unconventional togas, or the soldiers’ late-Republican model panoply) are faithfully presented. The writers show a true appreciation for source material, both ancient and modern (Plutarch’s Lives and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall spring to mind), which is more than you can say for some recent Greco-Roman films (Troy, Gladiator). Of course, while all this may be gratifying to a History Channel devotee, how the series appeals to those who can’t name all five Julio-Claudian emperors in order is another question.
Rome’s plot tracks the rise of Julius Caesar (Ciáran Hinds) from commander of the Thirteenth Legion in far-off Gaul to Roman “Dictator for Life”—a term of service that would end up expiring rather quickly. [Sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for some of you. Still, if you didn’t know that Caesar got the bad end of a sharp, metallic surprise, then, in the words of the big Southern rappin’ pimp Presario: “Go read a book, you illiterate son of a bitch.”]
Opposing Caesar’s ascendancy are the Optimates (i.e., conservatives), led by Marcus Porcius Cato Uticencis (Karl Johnson), the Moderates led by the somewhat reluctant Marcus Tullius Cicero (David Bamber), and Caesar’s former ally Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Kenneth Cranham). On Caesar’s side are the Populares (i.e., Populists) led by the newly elected Tribune of the People, Marcus Antonius (James Purefoy), and Caesar’s own Thirteenth Legion.
Got that? Stay with me, chief.
Now, not only are the first episodes taken up with a coliseum’s worth of political maneuvering, but we’re also introduced to two common soldiers in Caesar’s legion: Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), both historical figures mentioned in De Bello Gallico. Through them we get a view of what life was like for the “average Roman” during this period. The severe, by-the-numerals Vorenus struggles with domestic problems, while Pullo wreaks all sorts of havoc with his mercurial antics. The two form an unlikely friendship, made believable because of the convincingly human nuances Stevenson and McKidd bring to their roles. But wait!—there’s more. Add to the mix Rome’s resident Lady Macbeth, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker), her brainiac son Gaius Octavianus (Max Pirkis) and her oh-the-humanity daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon), and you begin to long for the simple clarity of the United States Tax Code.
Mercifully, with so much going on in the script, the series takes a decidedly simpler tack with its visuals. Unlike so many HBO dramas, Rome’s directors and editors seem to have avoided the flashiness bug that their sister shows have all too often contracted. Cuts are simple and logical, never jarring or avant-garde. Scenes progress in a sensible manner, and characters are portrayed in a consistent way. Sure, there’s the occasional tight shot to disguise the fact that the Roman “army” consists of 12 extras, but credit is due to the directors for making the plot complexities easier to follow while still showcasing Rome’s impressive production values.
So, the bottom line on Rome is that it, like most good art, will be best appreciated by viewers who are willing to meet it halfway. This is not a show to fall asleep to. But, if you thrive on textured writing, if you know your history (or want to learn), or if you still ponder wistfully the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius, this show is for you. Even for lovers of reality TV, Rome is probably still worth checking out. The sheer $100 million spectacle of it all will keep most any viewer interested for a little while—not to mention the full-frontal nudity and graphic violence. And if you get hooked in by that stuff, maybe you’ll actually care when Caesar gets et tu Brute’d. Come for the nekkid people, stay for the history—the motto of any good Classics buff.