The events depicted are reasonably well-known, at least in their barest form, but the nuances are the subject of much debate. The primary reason for this is, of course, that there are so few surviving accounts. However, it is also a story that in many ways is more applicable to today than even the intervening medieval period, making it more difficult for people to not project current events into the backdrop of history. Relatively few powerful monarchies still exist today, and certainly not in the Western world, but Rome is the story of the transformation of a republic into an empire. Before modern times, Rome was the last republic, and its death became a cautionary tale that led political theorists to espouse the futility of such governments for centuries.
At the most cynical, Rome - and Athens before it - show that in times of great turmoil, the masses will willingly vote away their freedoms to any demagogue who can spout enough empty rhetoric about "bread and circuses" to satisfy them. The most obvious example, Alcibiades, is actually from Athens, but one could argue that Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, and so forth would also fit. In fact, the series itself articulates such a position, mostly from the senators who quickly conspire to kill Caesar in a bid to save the Republic, but also from the more cynical patricians who seek to use this theory to consolidate their own power.
But on to the actual series. Let's get the easy stuff out of the way first. The amount of money reportedly spent on the production was immense - large enough to actually be the reason for season 3's cancellation - and it shows. One of the DVD extras shows the massive sets that were constructed for the series. They claimed the set for the Roman forum was something like half the size of the actual forum, and this was just a single set! Hundreds of extras were on hand for the various parade scenes, and the costumes, of which there were literally tens of thousands, are both lavish and colorful. As can be seen in the first picture, the series certainly could bring on the spectacle when called for.
However, as I concluded the series, I couldn't help but think something was a little off. It took me a while, but I think I've finally figured out what. Rome tries to tell two stories. First, it depicts the great political events of the age. Second, it attempts to show life in ancient Rome at the street level. In the first, we have the expected cast of characters: Caesar, Brutus, Octavian, Pompey, etc. The second is mostly told through the eyes of two legionaries, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, and their families. While either is a legitimate approach individually, trying to mesh both into one series leads to an uneven narrative.
The writers seek to get around this by using an especially galling method that, sadly, is not unique to this series. Specifically, the two legionaries are constantly woven into the first story as well as their own, thereby unifying the two lines. What this results in is a totally implausible series of events in which two normal joes essentially have the most fantastic life imaginable, always seeming to be at the center of the great events of the day. The most ludicrous example is the time when both men are shipwrecked en route to Greece, only to wash up on shore at the exact point where the retreating Magnus Pompey is camping for the night. The two legionaries share a meal with him over the campfire, where he tells them of his defeat at the hands of Caesar. This is right before Pompey meets his maker in Egypt. Of course, the two arrive there shortly thereafter as well, at which point Julius Caesar naturally chooses them to go on a daring raid to rescue Cleopatra. Got all that? Well, that was what they did in only two of the twelve episodes. They did much more in the other ten. Vorenus even gets appointed to the Roman Senate. No joke. This was funny in Forest Gump, as that movie made a big joke of it all, but it's outright annoying here.
Otherwise, I thought the series was quite good. The acting was generally top-notch. Polly Walker goes over the top as Atia of the Julii, playing an absolute raving bitch that somehow is likeable. Perhaps it's the absolute delight she takes in getting into the mud, perhaps it's that she says things that I'd like to say, or maybe it's just that she's hot. Some of her one-liners are literally roll-on-the-floor funny, such as when she sends a gift of a particularly well-endowed slave to a rival. Her daughter asks her why the rival would even want such a gift, to which she casually replies, "well, who wouldn't want another large penis?" In another scene, she forces her son, Octavian, to eat goat testicles, giving him the simple rationale that "it will put oak in your penis." Yes, there's a lot of penis jokes I guess...
Who else? Lindsay Duncan puts in a nuanced performance as Servilia. Starting out as elegant and regal, she slowly becomes cold and calculating as others around her continually force her hand. I must say my wife pointed out far before I recognized it that Servilia had become quite the bitch on her own, and it wasn't because she had guessed the plot. She pointed out certain looks and actions that gave it away... "No, you're imagining things," I told her. It turned out I was wrong, so I'm guessing it might be the type of performance that women "get" and dudes are surprised by. Or maybe I'm horrible at noticing this stuff...
Ciarán Hinds should also get a nod, as he is wonderfully understated as Julius Caesar. For once, the military hero is portrayed first as a statesman and only second as a general, making it an unusual portrayal. One can almost see how people would be suckered in by him: in public, he is the image of peace and reconcilliation, extending the hand of friendship to former enemies such as Brutus and Pompey. On the other hand, he coldly and calmly orders the assassination of his critics and allows trusted (and innocent) allies to go to gruesome execution merely to uphold his public image.
I should also mention that, while I'm not particularly enamored of the performance, James Purefoy's Mark Antony is interesting in that he is shown as his own man rather than simply the henchman of Julius Caesar. He has his own plots brewing, seeks always to acquire his own men loyal first to him, and even flirts with betraying Caesar when it might benefit him. It's a different take on an old character.
However, the most interesting performance of the entire show is given by perhaps its youngest regular: Max Pirkis as Octavian. In other shows, such as the wretched Empire miniseries from a few years back, Octavian is always shown as a weakling that somehow turns into a great leader through some unknown epiphany (magic?). It is well-established that Octavian was not the military man his uncle was, but I've never been satisfied with the ubiquitous depicition of him as a pansy-ass up until he became great. Thankfully, Max Pirkis chose to play him as a philospher-poet on the one hand, but with a keen eye for politics and an understated-but-very-real brutal streak on the other. It is often he that first determines the true nature of the political game, many times warning those around him of the impending pitfulls (though he's mostly ignored by the "grown-ups'). When Titus Pullo, who has been hired to teach him the art of fighting (I said these two goons got around, didn't I?), suspects Vorenus' wife of having a baby by another man, he goes to Octavian for advice. Octavian wisely counsels public discretion but to gather more information behind-the-scenes. His method for doing this? Kidnap the other man, take him to the sewers, and torture him until he confesses to fathering the child. When he has elicited the confession, he calmly orders Titus to kill him and throw him into the filth so that the body is never found. This then, is the makings of a man who will one day rule an empire!
OK, so I've probably written enough. In light of my last blog post, potential viewers should know that there is sex in the series, and it's of a more graphic nature than The Tudors, though most of it is done in the first two episodes. I guess HBO had to cynically suck people in before they started telling the actual story, so be cautious with the kiddies. Second, there are some historical inaccuracies. Actually, some of them are major and unexplainable, such as the subplot of incest between Octavian and his sister. The typical timeline expansion and contraction is back again, and of course, almost anything that happens with the Vorenus and Pullo is fake. But the general outline of the big events seems solid enough.
So overall I'd recommend the series. It's good enough entertainment and educational to boot. As soon as I have Tudors season 2 out of the way, I'll have to move on the second season of this one.