What is it about The Roman Empire that fascinates us so? The answer is far too complicated to address in this forum, if you can pardon the pun. The influences of Rome are all around us. From the very form of government we practice to the grand arenas we watch our ballgames in, Rome can be found literally around every corner. Hollywood has recognized the allure since the early days of filmmaking. Classics like Ben Hur and Spartacus eventually gave way to the more modern epic Gladiator.
It is 52 BC and…Rome stands at a crossroads. Long ago established as a great Republic to rival the likes of Greece, the fledgling empire suffers from within. Senators appear to the common man as merely wealthy aristocrats who have long since lost any connection to the problems of everyday Roman life. Sound familiar? Gaius Julius Caesar (Hinds) controls an elite legion of Roman soldiers fighting for the glory of Rome in Gaul. His co-consul in Rome, Pompeius Magnus (Cranham) has grown impatient with Caesar’s many years of absence from Rome. The resulting civil war would eventually lead to collapse of a Republic and the beginning of dictatorship and empire that would drive Rome for centuries hence.
HBO is quickly running out of hits. With Tony Soprano and his gang about to exit and the recent finales of Six Feet Under and Sex In The City, HBO is in need of a triumph. Where better to unearth such conquest than in the very bowels of Rome itself. Teaming with a marvelous BBC crew filming on location in Rome, HBO might just have found its next legacy. I must first applaud the decision to reflect a more historically accurate story of Caesar than we are accustomed to. It was a risky move. Most of the viewing public comes upon Caesar’s story through Shakespeare and his legion of imitators. While that tragic depiction makes for fine theatre, it has for too long clouded an even more compelling tale. While the overall story is portrayed through the eyes of the fictionalized characters of Pullo and Vorenus, the depiction is about as flawless as we have ever been given. The sets are a marvel of modern construction, digital enhancement, and impeccable commitment to getting it right. How easy it would have been to provide a more romantic, spotless, but historically bankrupt version of this great city. Instead HBO and the BBC took a chance, and it has paid off handsomely. The costumes are as good as any epic production, including Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or even Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. In short, this is one of the best all around production efforts to grace at least a television effort if not film itself.
At first I found the obvious British actors to be a slap in the face of all of this carefully crafted accuracy. In time I found the accents and mannerisms to be of some benefit. Perhaps it is that American concept that a British accent implies class or aristocracy. Whatever the reason, this first perceived flaw soon became a valuable asset. The actor’s themselves are purely brilliant. I was most impressed with the performance of Max Pirkis as Octavian. It’s clear his rise to lead an empire is yet to be explored in future seasons of Rome. While historical accuracy does eventually suffer in the roles of some of the characters, it is somewhat forgivable. Characters are often combined or altered to allow for smoother continuity or less confusion in film. Still, the greatest flaw the series has is that even with the simplification of characters this series is a bear to follow. The 12 hours is nowhere near enough time to explore the rise and fall of Caesar or the complicated times of this period of history. HBO would have served the story far better by slowing down a tad even if it meant telling Caesar’s story over more than one season. Perhaps the cost (over $100 million) was an overwhelming factor. I do think the graphic sexual encounters went a bit too far to make the point. Even with such flaws, this is an event you should not miss.
The 16X9 anamorphic presentation is quite stunning. Colors literally jump from the screen in a brilliance deserving of such an epic story. Reds are particularly well defined. An important color in the traditions of Rome, it is found in many of the costumes and draperies throughout the series. Colorful silks and robes highlight just how vivid the color presentation truly is. Even the dank underbelly of Rome’s slums is stark in its realism. Blacks are perfect and teeming with detail. Never before have I seen a television presentation so perfect. There is at times just a slight hint of digital artifact, but never anything you will notice unless you are straining to see it.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is almost as impressive as the video. Notable as much for what you don’t hear, this soundtrack is near flawless. The producers used a great deal of quiet at times to make a point. It is during these reflective moments that the rustle of a robe or the tread of a sandal demonstrates how well the sound is constructed. Music comes through in symphonic brilliance at just the right moments. Dialogue is never covered up. Surrounds are used aggressively at times and appropriately conservatively at others. This transfer is a wonderful testament to the sound folks behind this production.
Eight of the twelve episodes come with commentaries These commentaries offer a ton of insight into both the making of the series and the effort to “get it right”.
“Friends, Romans, and Countrymen” This is a vital introduction to the enormous cast of characters you’ll find in the series. I mentioned how swiftly the show runs through history, and this acts as your scorecard to identify the players. Watch this FIRST! It is conveniently located on the first disc.
“Shot By Shot Triumph” A turning point in the story is Caesar’s Triumph. A Triumph was an extended celebration in honor of a conquering hero’s return to Rome. Caesar’s was particularly significant as it sets the stage for his capture of political power. This 22 minute feature looks at the array of sets and the enormous prep work involved in this massive scene.
“Shot By Shot The Spoils” This is by far the coolest of the features. There is an exceptionally gore-filled gladiator scene in the episode “The Spoils” You’ll get to see the cast and crew piece together this rare moment of violence for the series. Trick weapons and blood pumps are the order of the day here.
“The Rise Of Rome” This nearly 25 minute feature gives us a grand tour of these impressive sets. The Forum dominates the stage. The costumes are also featured.
“When In Rome” Another 25 minutes, this time exploring the advantages of shooting on location in Rome. The traditions of Rome are explored here. Many of the religious rituals performed in the series are also explored. Like the previous feature, there are plenty of discussions with the cast and crew.
The final disc offers a huge gallery of production stills that you can examine at your leisure.
Unlike many ancient civilizations, Rome is well documented in the writings of its great philosophers and even its common citizens. The challenge, then, exists to portray the place and time in as accurate a way as possible and maintain the drama and splendor that an audience will expect. Not an easy task, but HBO and BBC certainly created a precedent that will be nearly impossible to top. I am eager to see what the next 12 hours or so will bring. There is yet Antony’s tale to tell. I am even more hungry for the rise of Octavian. If they can keep this level up, Rome has a very bright future ahead. Until then these DVD’s are a requisite to any fan of the period or even high drama of any kind. A truly enjoyable experience. And oh, “What a dreadful noise plebes make when they’re happy”.
Special Features List
- Commentary on selected episodes
- “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” – Introduction to the characters of Rome.
- Interactive onscreen guide prepared by the series’ historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp
- “Shot x Shot: Caesar’s Triumph”
- “Shot x Shot:”The Spoils”
- “The Rise of Rome”
- “When in Rome” featurette
- Photo gallery