Fifteen years ago, HBO’s ‘Rome’ delivered a bloody good spectacle

On Aug. 28, 2005, HBO debuted the premium cable channel’s most ambitious drama to date – “Rome.”

Set in the waning days of the Roman Republic circa 52 BC, this sumptuous, sprawling saga tracked the shifting winds of power with seemingly all of the civilized Western world in play.

In “The Stolen Eagle,” series co-creator Bruno Heller and director Michael Apted accomplish the impossible, delivering a near-perfect pilot that introduces most (but not all) of the major players, and sets up conflicts and rivalries that will drive the show for the rest of its bloody but lamentably short run.

This is not the Rome Hollywood so often gives us.

This city is no spit-polished, practically ready-for-tourists attraction. It’s a bustling metropolis with everyone working a hustle. The streets are dirty and gross, the buildings often marred with lewd graffiti. This is a city people live in, work in, fuck in, take dumps in. It’s glorious and it’s obscene.

James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds, "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds, “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), with his top ally Mark Antony (James Purefoy), has spent eight years fighting barbarian forces in Gaul, winning the devotion of his soldiers and the love of the common people. His popularity alarms many seasoned senators back in Rome, but Caesar’s old friend Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) defends him publicly.

Privately? Not so much.

Caesar’s scheming niece Atia (Polly Walker) cannily senses a shift in power is coming and uses her children Octavian (Max Pirkis) and Octavia (Kerry Condon) to secure her position.

So what if it means whoring out Octavia to Pompey or jeopardizing teenager Octavian’s life by sending him straight into the battleground on a fool’s errand?

In a cast of giants, Walker is a standout, making her amoral minx a delight and a scandal.

Polly Walker, "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
Polly Walker, “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

At the heart of this drama are two warriors, centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, pre-“Grey’s Anatomy”) and soldier Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). (These characters are based on actual men mentioned in Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars.)

Lucius is a proper by-the-book officer, seemingly with one stick up so far up his butt, he’d need two more to get it out.

Titus is a vulgar drunk facing death for rank insubordination.

Of course they’re forced to work together, and McKidd and Stevenson make both their men dangerous, unpredictable, and wholly worth rooting for.

By hour’s end, Atia has been thwarted, but she is undaunted. Pompey’s scheme to destabilize Caesar’s popularity by having his legion’s golden eagle standard stolen also is foiled. Caesar decides to at last return to Rome with his army for a reckoning.

The final shot of the villages in Gaul – burning as far as the eye can see – serve as an omen for what is to come.

Gaul is burning, "Rome" (Photo: HBO)
Gaul is burning, “Rome” (Photo: HBO)

Composer Jeff Beal gives “Rome” one of the best soundtracks of any series, otherworldly, rousing, downright haunting. I can listen to it for days on end.

With so many series delayed or sidelined by the pandemic, now is the perfect time to revisit “Rome.” I will be doing a deep dive, reviewing a new episode every week, working my way through “Rome’s” two epic seasons.

Next: “How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic”

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