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Legionalism: The troops of 'Rome' prepare for the ratings wars.

Flavius of The Month

HBO's new 'Rome' wasn't built in a day, but a lot of viewers won't make it past the series' first hour

By Michael S. Gant

THE IRON law of films about Rome applies to HBO's eponymous new series: the denizens of the Eternal City speak in stratifed layers of English accents. The plebs sound like Cockneys, while the nobles deliver their lines with Oxonian flair. The Romans conquered Gaul as surely as they did Britannia, so how come they never talk like Gérard Depardieu?

The 12-part first season, which started last Sunday, is an HBO/BBC co-production. That explains the accents but doesn't excuse the plodding narrative, which turns one of history's prime episodes of naked power politics into a sludge of murky vignettes enacted by barely distinguishable characters (toga tags would help).

The action begins in 52 B.C.E., as the patrician ideals of the Republic start to give way to the popular dictatorships of the Empire. Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), busy putting out barbarian brush fires, contemplates his next career move. Back in Rome, his uneasy co-consul, Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham, Gangster No. 1), plots with the Senate to defang Caesar and his restive legions. Meanwhile, the usual suspects from the Penguin Classics pursue their various intrigues: Caesar's oversexed niece, Atia (Polly Walker), takes on multiple lovers, including Mark Antony (James Purefoy from Vanity Fair), and shoves her offspring, Octavia and Octavian, around like pawns on a chessboard.

Conniving senators (among them Cato and Cicero, the Bill Frist and Tom DeLay of their era) shake their fists and filibuster. Hapless animals sacrifice their internal organs in the name of divine augury, including one bull who gives a whole new meaning to the term "blood bath."

The familiar tale is humanized by the addition of two ordinary grunts: centurions Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, Kingdom of Heaven) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). The former is sober and humorless; the latter, ribald and ready to rumble. In other words, they are the perfect odd couple, and at times their misadventures (a stolen ox cart full of gold, tavern brawls, brain surgery without anesthesia) look like Laurel and Hardy, the Very Early Years.

(Surprisingly, Vorenus and Pullo, who smack of pure invention, actually rate three paragraphs in The Conquest of Gaul, where Caesar relates how the two bitter rivals saved each other's lives during a battle with the Nervii. The rest, as they say, is not history.)

The basic trouble with Rome is that we know how it ends (yes, that's backstabber Brutus with the ferrety teeth lurking in the shadows), so suspense is out of the question. The show must then rely on premium cable's one last advantage over basic cable and the networks: bare breasts and profanity. Atia provides most of the former in her casual couplings, while the hoi polloi busy themselves trash-talking and scribbling obscene graffiti on the Forum walls. This Rome is more Plautus than Livy.

The sets, constructed at Cinecittà studios in Rome, are grander than the backdrops in ABC's pre-emptive miniseries Empire but still look underpopulated compared to the days when Cecil B. De Mille could command legions of extras with the snap of a paycheck. HBO is banking on the grossness of ancient life (the raw food, the open sewers, the pasty complexions) to paper over a script that neither meets the poetical standards of Shakespeare nor matches the malicious wit of I, Claudius, the 1976 BBC 13-parter on which the makers of Rome have admittedly—and wistfully—based their show.

Actually, the creators of Rome had an even better model closer to hand: The Sopranos. The squabbling between Caesar and Pompey doesn't look all that different from the mob turf wars in David Chase's masterpiece. The ultimate coup would have been to recast Rome with James Gandolfini as Caesar, Dominic (Uncle Junior) Chianese as Pompey, Michael (Christopher) Imperioli as Octavian, Edie Falco as Calpurnia and so on down the line. But we'll cross that Rubicon when we come to it. If The Sopranos represents HBO's empire at the peak of its influence, then some future Gibbon of TV will date the network's decline and fall from Rome.


Rome shows Sundays at 9pm on HBO.


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From the August 31-September 6, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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