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Where all roads lead

Molly Griffin | Friday, December 2, 2005

Ancient history may not seem like a topic meant for a television series, particularly on a network like HBO. Fortunately for viewers, “Rome” emerges as a great show that deftly balances entertainment with history to create a dynamic drama series.

“Rome” takes place in the heated political climate of the year 52 B.C., when the old values and institutions that the culture was founded on are beginning to crumble. Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), following a victory in Gaul, returns to the city with a new political agenda, and his old friend, Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), must determine where the balance of power now lies.

Intertwined in the larger political rumblings are two Roman soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Historically, they are the only two regular soldiers mentioned by name in Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico.” They become central to the major events that shape the ultimate political outcome in the war between Caesar and Pompey, and their involvement provides insight into a side of Roman history that is often not seen in most television presentations – the lives of everyday people.

By showing the soldiers’ families, friends and companions, viewers get to see the real grittiness of daily life in ancient Rome, which is far different from the lives and machinations of the upper classes that are usually portrayed alone. This doesn’t mean that “Rome” shies away from showing the violence, sex and betrayal that shaped Roman politics. Instead, it shows that these traits weren’t limited to the upper class and were practiced by many Roman citizens, plebian and patrician.

The first season depicts Caesar’s rise to dictatorship following the end of the Gallic wars and continues until his assassination. In the background of these events, viewers also see the young Octavian (Max Pirkis), the future emperor Augustus Caesar, being raised by his scheming mother, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker). Other important characters, both to history and to the series, include Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Cicero (David Bamber), Cato (Karl Johnson) and Brutus (Tobias Menzies).

The series is a joint venture between HBO and the BBC, and it is one of the largest partnerships with an American company that the BBC has ever entered into. The budget for the first season of “Rome” was around $100 million dollars, and filming involved building replicas of sections of the city in the Italian countryside. There was a crew of around 350 international workers and 50 Italian interns.

“Rome” debuted on Aug. 28 to high ratings and critical praise. The second season will not be out until 2007, due to high production costs and a lengthy filming process. The new season is rumored to focus on the power struggle that emerges between Octavian and Mark Antony.

Overall, “Rome” shows both the glamour and grit of life in Ancient Rome by balancing its portrayal of notable historical figures with the lives of everyday citizens. It is at times extremely violent and it skips around in history for the sake of entertainment, but it is a wholly addictive show that will have you scrambling for history books while you’re waiting for the next episode.