When I was younger, I used to love watching movies like Spartacus, not so much because they provided particularly great depictions of ancient Rome, but because they were the way anybody get any sense of the grandeur of the Roman empire. In fact, looking back, those films were often quite cheesy. Hollywood stopped making movies about ancient Rome for a long while, until Gladiator came out in 2000. As a movie, Gladiator was awesome and showed a vastly more realistic yet grander Rome than ever before seen in Hollywood. Yet, as history, the movie had its flaws (most notably that it distorted the historical record quite bit). However, I'd despaired that it would be the pinnacle of our ability to visualize Rome.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that HBO did an excellent job at recreating the ancient Roman empire in its miniseries Rome. At first, I was suspicious, worried that Rome would become twisted by HBO, the same creators of Sex and the City. Yet, the series is awesome. In terms of the production quality, it looks and feels like a big budget movie (indeed, the cost of the series eventually doomed it). The acting, visual effects, and soundtrack are exceptional (be sure to get Jeff Beal's soundtrack Rome: Music from the HBO Series).
HBO also took care to portray Rome in a somewhat historically accurate fashion. HBO hired expert historians and consultants for every detail. Unlike most movies about ancient Rome, HBO did not shy away from portraying the less glamorous sides of Rome. In fact, much of the series deals with everyday citizens, from prostitutes to roving gangs. This in turn means that the series includes a lot of explicit sex and violence. While this means the series isn't appropriate for kids or the faint of heart, it does mean that Rome shows Rome as it actually was.
One thing I love about this series is that it deals with the last years of the Roman Republic, one of the most compelling eras in history. Most movies and TV shows shy away from historically important events, but HBO tackles it with gusto. The show manages to remain historically accurate while using actual historical to provide the drama in the show. HBO did a great job finding actors to portray Julius Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, Cato, and the rest of the dramatis personae (although I wasn't as pleased with their choices for the Augustus side of the family - see below). At times, you almost feel like you traveled back in a time machine to witness these epic events. If you're interested in this period, I'd recommend Tom Holland's Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic for more depth on events during the period. I only wish the series had been longer rather than only two seasons - it would have great to have seen the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD, or the end of Augustus' reign. However, apparently the budget for the show grew so large that HBO (foolishly) decided to cancel it.
My only criticism of the show is the portrayal of Augustus and his mother, Atia (Polly Walker). Historians don't necessarily have accurate information on the personalities of these figures, and there probably isn't a "definitive" interpretation of their lives. Still, I thought the show took a few too many liberties. While Atia in real life was probably cunning and ambitious, Polly Walker's version of Atia makes her into a psychotic and sadistic woman. In one scene, she even has a torture room and tortures Servilla. There's no historical basis for any of that, and it does seem a bit outlandish. For his part, Augustus as played by Simon Woods seemed a bit too dull and cynical. Again, while I'm sure Augustus must have had excellent political acumen to rise so high, he was also a brilliant administrator and did have a vision for Rome. I just didn't think HBO's depiction of either character stood up well or resembled what I had read in Anthony Everitt's excellent Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor.
A quick note about the DVDs themselves. They are excellent quality and include hours of bonus materials, including deleted scenes and "making of" featurettes. I found some of the commentary about the interpretation of the characters pretty interesting. IF you or anybody you know loves ancient Roman history, Rome should definitely be on your Christmas list.
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About the reviewer
Dominic J Nardi (FreeDom4)
I am a recent law school grad with an interest in Southeast Asia legal issues. Unfortunately for my checkbook, ever since high school I have been addicted to good books. I have eclectic tastes, although … more
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Rome was an American-British historical drama television series created by Bruno Heller, John Milius, and William J. MacDonald. The show's two seasons premiered in 2005 and 2007, and were released on DVD soon afterwards.
Rome is set in the 1st century BC, during Ancient Rome's transition from Republic to Empire. The series begins with Caesar's conquest of Gaul and concludes with the death of Mark Antony and the rise of the first Emperor Augustus. The plots focus on the two main characters, soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who find their lives intertwined with the key events.
The series was a ratings success for HBO and the BBC. The show received much media attention from the start, and Rome was honored with numerous awards and nominations in its two-season run. Co-creator Heller stated in December 2008 that a Rome movie is in development. The series was filmed in various locations, but most notably in the Cinecittà studios in Italy.