Rome: Seasons One and Two Review
I somehow missed the first season of Rome when it was on tv and only started watching about three episodes into Season Two. I fell immediately and passionately in love with the Roman world and rushed out to buy Season One. And now Season Two is out on dvd, I might never leave the house again…
Rome opens in 52 BC; Vercingetorix has just surrendered all Gaul to Julius Caesar (Hinds) and with this tips the balance of power away from his old friend and Vice Consul Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham). Caesar has been away for eight years; the prospect of his return, garlanded in glory and the spoils of war, has the ruling class in an uproar. Returning to Rome with Caesar are two of his soldiers, the honourable, serious and slightly pompous Centurion Lucius Vorenus (McKidd) and cheerfully optimistic legionary Titus Pullo (Stephenson), whose philosophy can be summed up thus: “I kill my enemies, take their gold, and enjoy their women”. Pullo and Vorenus (the only common soldiers mentioned by name in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, fact fans) are thus present when Caesar breaks the law and leads his troops across the Rubicon, and witness or directly influence many historical events.
However, this being an HBO co-production, Rome is not in the least bit stuffy. Far from it! The Roman Revolution was a time of great social upheaval that was played out among the citizenry, and we cross from the great houses of the nobility to the slums and apartments of working class Rome. The production team have gone out of their way to create an authentic, living city, complete with obscene graffiti, piles of refuse, open sewers and all the rest. This is a million miles from the greyly austere Rome so often depicted in films. Similarly the language is ripe and poetic and has provided me with some rich new phrases, piss-drinking sons of circus whores being a particular favourite.
And then there’s the sex. One should point out that this was a pre-Christian society, and had very different morals; also that what was acceptable for the aristocracy would not go down well with the working people. But in the first episode we see Polly Walker’s fabulously amoral Atia (niece of Caesar, mother of Octavian, later Augustus) vigorously riding her chief of security, Timon (Lee Boardman); later at dinner she offers her daughter, Octavia (Condon) to Pompey Maximus as a bride, cheerfully suggesting that he needn’t wait to exercise his marital rites. James Purefoy’s hilariously crude Mark Anthony delays his mission to Rome to enjoy a grubby shepherdess by the roadside, while Pullo just can’t wait to hit the brothels. Be warned, the sex is graphic and often brutal.
And so is the violence.
But lest you think Rome is only about sex and violence, well there’s also the religion. Being pantheistic, Romans had gods for just about everything, and they needed to be constantly placated and made a fuss of. Again in Episode One we see Atia taking part in a ritual that involves the death of a bull and gallons of blood. Niobe (Varma) prays to the Bona Dea, a fat naked woman, to bring her joy in her marriage to the cold, glumpish Vorenus – years on the battlefield have not helped him to understand women, though finding the wife you haven’t seen for eight years holding a newborn baby is some justification…
Season Two takes place in the days immediately following the assassination of Caesar and ratchets up the political and personal rivalries to a deadly pitch. Some may find Atia’s brutal treatment of Servilia (Duncan) horrifying; on the other hand, Servilia is pretty evil, she’s just better at getting others to do her dirty work for her. But generally the atmosphere of Season Two is grimmer and more miserable than Season One, though the machinations of Anthony and Octavian (Pirkis/Woods) are fascinating to watch. Simon Woods is just superb as Octavian, coldly watchful, almost reptilian at times.
Season Two suffers in that it compresses too much story into a very short time – it was originally intended to make at least three seasons but Rome at a cost of $100 million just proved too expensive. But the money is all up on the screen. It looks amazing – every little detail feels authentic. And it’s damned good entertainment.
Rome Seasons One and Two are available on DVD now. Extras include Making of, commentaries, and an invaluable interactive guide, All Roads Lead To Rome, which explains some of the more arcane practices and daily rituals and habits of the Ancient Romans.
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