Ever since Robert Graves' historical novel "I, Claudius" was turned into a hugely successful BBC series, screenwriters have reveled in the possibilities of an empire with mail delivery, dental work and plumbing, but no Christian inhibitions or Senate subcommittee hearings.
HBO is the latest network to fall under the imperial spell with "Rome," a 12-episode series produced jointly by the BBC and HBO at a cost of $100 million. Filmed at the Italian film studio Cinecittà, it features if not a cast of thousands, at least the television equivalent of Cecil B. DeMille extravagance.
HBO is the ideal place for such imaginative play. The Sopranos, after all, are mobsters with Prozac, flat-screen television sets and social slights. (We sulk or sue, they slaughter, but otherwise, the discontents are eerily the same.) No other network, cable or broadcast, has a stronger mandate to update the rivalry of Julius Caesar and Pompey or the filial strains between Octavian and his mother Atia. Certainly no other network has more license to depict sex, violence and family intrigue (all premium cable gall is divided into three parts.)
"Rome," which begins on Aug. 28, was supposed to mark HBO's crossing of the Rubicon - setting a new level for its original programming with a lavishly produced costume drama whose contemporary sensibility would make the forum the next Bada Bing club.
HBO was hoping, that is, that "Rome" would be the new "I, Claudius." But that series, a depiction of the Roman Empire from Augustus to Nero, set an impossibly high standard. It featured some of the most distinguished actors of the day (Derek Jacobi played Claudius) in an intelligent, rollicking soap opera about the depravity and dysfunction of ancient Rome - scandalous fare, at that time. "I, Claudius" was high-low pop culture at a time when the line between art and entertainment was rarely breached. (Even the novel was daring: traditional classicists sniffed that Graves had relied on the most lurid accounts of Suetonius and Tacitus, historians who were the In Touch magazine of their day. )
Now every television rendition of ancient Rome has British actors and huge dollops of debauchery and carnage, most recently the 2003 TNT drama "Caesar" and ABC's mini-series "Empire," in June. (Prior to that, accents posed a different challenge: Tony Curtis impersonators still thrive on "I love you, Spartacus, as I love my own fadder.")
"Rome" is no different. The upper-class Romans speak with posh Oxbridge accents. (When Caesar's envoys enter the city throwing necklaces and other spoils of war to the roaring masses, two aristocrats in the crowd are disdainful. "What a dreadful noise plebes make when they are happy," one drawls to the other.) The plebeians themselves have a slight British working-class intonation. And as for the house slaves, they speak like Father Guido Sarducci.
THE story begins in 52 B.C., when Julius Caesar defeats Vercingetorix (the leader of the Gauls is stripped naked and forced to kneel and kiss the Roman conqueror's gold Eagle standard) and begins setting his sights on seizing power in Rome. Roman loyalties are divided between Caesar and his erstwhile ally, Pompey. Everyone from Atia to the lowliest legionnaire has to scheme and double-deal their way through the treacherous political landscape.
"Rome" has magnificent sets and delicious small touches, down to the way the town crier moves his hands like a traffic cop to mime his pronouncements. But somewhere along the Appian Way, HBO lost its nerve: the writers seem so intimidated by the legacy of Livy, Gibbon and Graves that they surrendered the necessary creativity and impiety.
It's as if the creators felt obliged to keep the pace stately and the characters one-dimensional because they didn't trust their audience to follow the basic plot: aristocrats want to prevent Caesar from seizing power in order to preserve their privileges and corrupt practices. But the politics of "Deadwood" are much more complicated. (How many viewers really understand what Yankton is all about?)
HBO has always distinguished itself by its villains. In "Rome," however, there is no one as complicated and compelling as Tony Soprano or Deadwood's Al Swearengen. Cato, who wears a black toga on the Senate floor and bullies Pompey into a confrontation with Caesar, is a by-the-book Roman scold played with starchy indignation by Karl Johnson.
Even Atia, Caesar's seductive, conspiratorial niece (Polly Walker) - who gets to utter threats like "I'll use the eyes of your children as beads" - is nowhere near as psychologically complex and scary as Augustus's wife, Livia, played by Siân Phillips in "I, Claudius." For that matter, she's not as complex as Tony Soprano's mother, Livia, who was in spirit as well as name the epitome of the ruthless Roman matriarch.
From the very beginning, "Rome" follows the historic record too dutifully, making reference to famous events and real-life figures from Brutus and Mark Antony to Cato, Cicero and Calpurnia. Everybody knows something about ancient Rome, if only from Shakespeare or even just the matchbooks at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Few remember all the historic details exactly. They don't matter.
Besides, historic accuracy in made-for-television dramas is a bit like frugality in the restaurant business: admirable, but not the kind of virtue that attracts four stars. "Rome," would have been better off exploring psychological strains that link us to a remote past that is ever present, from our legislative system to the nomenclature of plants and the costume of choice at a college fraternity party.
Bruno Heller, who wrote "Rome," and is also one of the series' creators and executive producers, has insisted that his script breaks with clunky classicism of the swords-and-toga genre to reveal a grittier, more realistic side of Rome, but is hard to see where. Sure, the first few episodes include scenes set in the teeming, Calcutta-like slums of ancient Rome, but so did "Gladiator." Even "Ben-Hur," included leper colonies along with chariot races.
The bright spot of "Rome" is in its subplot, the friendship of two Roman soldiers caught up in the larger frieze of empire-building and political intrigue. Centurian Lucius Vorenus, (James Purefoy) is a straight-arrow officer in Cesar's 13th Legion, while Legionnaire Titus Pullo, (Ray Stevenson), is a drunken, womanizing lout - a soccer hooligan in sandals.
The two hate each other at first sight. After the battle of Alesia, Vorenus has Pullo flogged then imprisoned for breaking battle formation to go on a wild killing streak. But fortune and misadventure bring them together after the war is over.
There is one other compelling character: Octavius, (Max Pirkis) Caesar's 11-year-old great nephew who grows up to become the Emperor Augustus: a boy with imperial cruelty and prep school self-consciousness. Mr. Pirkis, who looks a lot like the former child actor Neil Patrick Harris, plays Octavian as solemn, brainy and eerily precocious: a Doogie Howser, B.C.
Sex and violence in "Rome" are predictably explicit and unsuitable for children. (Suffice it to say that back then, men not only worshipped goats, they borrowed their mating habits.) The depiction of Roman religious practices is more interesting - a confused pastiche of piety and superstition that ranges from monks in red robes singing pre-Christian chants to disgusting animal sacrifices.
To secure Octavius's safe return from a dangerous mission, for example, Atia takes a bovine shower: she sits in a tub while, from a loft above her head, priests slit the throat of a live bull, letting the still warm blood pour down all over her face and bared chest. (It works better than Calgon: Octavius lives, and Atia's skin looks radiant)
But over all, "Rome" cries out for more imaginative casting, an unorthodox central character, and richer, smarter writing. Instead, much of it is expository and trite. "Without the gold, the people will turn on him with a vengeance," Pompey says of Caesar. "Without the people, he has nothing."
The success of "The Sopranos," and "Six Feet Under," and more recently, "Deadwood," lies in the way they paint sweeping, deeply layered psychological themes into the most humble, inauspicious frames: a mob family in New Jersey, a family-run funeral parlor in Los Angeles. Even "Deadwood" is just a 19th-century frontier town.
"Rome," takes on an entire civilization and whittles it down to less than its ruins.
"Rome" has arresting scenes and enjoyable moments, but it does not open a new frontier in HBO's empire. HBO is supposed to be the Caput Mundi of American television, bold, inventive and invincible. "Rome" is closer to Carthage.
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