If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to watch better TV shows, check out the HBO series Rome ASAP! This is a very adult show w/ grown-up situations, so it’s not for the whole family. It’s very addictive and keeps you guessing. (Don’t go on You Tube or you’ll see spoilers!) The setting is a pre-Christian world, so modern-day morals don’t apply.
At first, I was just awed by the sheer scale and beauty of the production. Everything looks gorgeous (including James Purefoy, above)- music, costumes, scenery. The show was shot on location on a high budget, even for HBO.
You’ll see all levels of ancient Roman society, from plebians barely eeking out a living in gritty tenements to patricians partying in brightly painted halls. Adding to the realism are many extras- Italians of all ages, shapes, and complexions. The acting is top-notch- w/ familiar faces and exciting newcomers from the UK.
When Season 1 begins, a middle-aged Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds from The Mayor of Casterbridge and Persuasion), is in Gaul (now France) expanding the Roman empire and vanquishing the “wild natives.” Pompey, Caesar’s old friend and son-in-law, is in charge of the city of Rome. Caesar and Pompey rule as co-counsels w/ a powerful Senate (which includes Cato and Cicero). Brutus (Tobias Menzies) looks on Caesar as a mentor, though he keeps insisting he won’t go into politics. (He was one of my favorite characters.)
Then Pompey’s wife, Caesar’s daughter, dies tragically during giving birth. Some senators feel that Pompey should split from Caesar and become leader of Rome.
There are many legions fighting for Caesar in Gaul; the 13th is reputed as one of his most loyal. Mark Antony (Purefoy from Vanity Fair) is at Caesar’s side, though some patrician Romans look down on him for being an egotistical commoner w/rough speech and brutish manners. But the soldiers love him.
Caesar’s best asset may be Posca (Nicholas Woodeson), an observant Greek slave no less clever than his master. He helps Caesar plan battles, draft speeches, and negotiate deals. The don’t have the typical master-slave relationship; Posca protects Caesar’s secret (he’s an epileptic). In the Season 1 finale, when Caesar lies dead on the senate floor, Posca is the only character who sheds tears by his side. (There are several other slaves who play significant roles in Rome.)
One particularly fine soldier from the 13th is Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, a Scotsman currently on Grey’s Anatomy) who hails from the Subura (the largest slum of ancient Rome). He hasn’t seen his beautiful wife Niobe (Indira Varma) and two young daughters in 8 years, but fights for the Republic w/o complain. (The Republic was akin to religion to many Romans.)
The soldier who bonds w/ Vorenus is Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Unlike the sober Vorenus, the tall/imposing Pullo loves cursing, wine, and women of the night. He can get into a fight over the smallest matter, but Vorenus can count on him when things get tough. Their friendship ties the entire show together. (Vorenus and Pullo are the only soldiers mentioned by name in the journals of the real Mark Antony.)
Another reason to watch Rome are its fascinating female characters: patricians, plebians, and slaves included. Vorenus’ wife Niobe must learn to love and understand her husband after many years. She has a secret that could cost her her life if it ever came out. (Why does Varma fit so well in this setting? Her mother was half-Genovese.)
Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan from Mansfield Park and Lost in Austen) is Brutus’ mother and Caesar’s favorite female companion. On the outside, she keeps cool and composed, like a fine lady. But Servilia, widow of two great Romans, has a keen mind and great ambition for her son.
Caesar’s niece, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker from BBC’s Emma), is the nemesis of Servilia. She’s also a widow, unapolegetically ambitious and manipulative. Atia conducts a fiery on-again, off-again relationship w/ Antony and doesn’t care what others think about it. But is there any love there?
Octavia (Irish newcomer Kerry Condon) is Atia’s sensitive/vulnerable daughter. She’s often pulled into Atia’s power plays. Her mother often tells her to not slouch, dress better, and toughen up. It’s all about survival, Atia tells her kids. But Octavia deeply yearns for true love and some control of her life.
Of course Cleopatra (newcomer/theater actress Lyndsay Marshal) makes several appearances. In Season 1, she’s a pixie-like teenager who plays vulnerable to seduce Caesar and get back the throne of Egypt from her little bro. In Season 2, she’s the bold empress who seduces Antony, then falls deeply in love w/ him. Antony falls hard too, but it’s not meant to last.
In my opinion, the breakout star of Rome is Max Pirkis (who made his film debut in Master and Commander)- he plays the young nephew of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavian. He learns a lot from reading- words and people. Octavian is a brilliant, cold-hearted, and calculating boy who’s not afraid to use violence. The adult Octavian Caesar is played by newcomer Simon Woods (below).
Who is “a true Roman?” (In one scene, a resident of his slum questions Vorenus’ heritage b/c of his red hair and Gallic features.) What is best for a nation- some type of representative democracy or one all-powerful leader? How does a city deal w/jobless soldiers unskilled at everything except fighting? What are the limits of friendship? The depiction of timeless themes and personal relationships make this show a must-see.