One matter needs clearing up immediately. Rumor has suggested that Rome, an expensive co-production of HBO and the BBC, would be quality goods, whereas Empire, the six-part ABC mini-series that sneaked into prime time two months ahead of Rome, was a low-rent Disney ripoff. Certainly Rome, shot entirely on location in the Imperial City or on the back lots and soundstages of Cinecittà studios, is more interesting to look at. The producers had the wit to imagine antiquity in gaudy color and rampant filth. And Bruno Heller’s script both resists Empire’s mindless Caesarism and improves on the usual gladiator point of view. We bear witness to the fall of the Republic from the confused perspective of two returning legionnaires, as if Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) were either Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. And this time, unlike in Empire, we actually see Caesar cross the Rubicon. Rome gets to show us Julius’s historic riverine passage because the series begins eight years earlier than Empire did, in 52 B.C. instead of 44 B.C. And nobody knows when, or if, it will ever end. Although we are assured of twelve episodes, the publicity material also speaks of a “first season.” We may have to sit still all the way to Mussolini.
Nevertheless, Rome isn’t exactly Gibbon. Not for nothing is Dirty Harry’s script doctor himself, John Milius, one of several executive producers. We are still talking about slave auctions, bloodbaths, bared breasts, battlefield rape, human footstools, and crucifixion as a handy means of torture when you’re looking into the whereabouts of a stolen eagle standard. Yes, Polly Walker (Emma, Patriot Games) is a voracious wonder as Octavian’s scheming mother, bad to her beautiful bones, but Fiona Shaw was an equal wow as Fulvia, Marc Antony’s wife, in Empire. And Octavian himself—who was called Octavius in the earlier mini-series even though both of them grow up to be the Emperor Augustus, about whom more in a minute—gets the very same whitewash in Rome as he got in Empire, not to mention in Virgil.
Michael Apted directs the only three hours of Rome available for preview, escorting us with Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) into the undefended city, from which Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) has ingloriously decamped. Other directors from the HBO stable—Allen Coulter, Julian Farino, Jeremy Podeswa, Alan Poul, Mikael Salomon, Steve Shill, Alan Taylor, Timothy Van Patten—will browbeat the story through the ides of March unto civil war, and then the ascension to power of callow Octavian to become humorless Augustus. We are encouraged to think the worst of Cicero (David Bamber), Cato (Karl Johnson), and Scipio (Paul Jesson). Lucius Vorenus, who has been away from home for eight years, needs to work on his marriage to Niobe (Indira Varma), who hasn’t been idle in his absence. We see a lot of Octavian’s sister, Octavia (Kerry Condon), and so does everybody else on full-frontal cable. You will be able to catch all these episodes practically any time of day or night, in regular rotation on HBO, HBO2, HBO Signature, and HBO On Demand, as well as in a free preview to nonsubscribers from September 3 through 7.
Now, about Octavian/Octavius/Augustus: Imperial Augustus made sure that he got good press from all the scribblers in his realm, including Horace, Maecenas, Propertius, Livy, and poor, luckless Virgil, who had to write the Aeneid when Horace turned it down. Augustus, in fact, was so pleased with what these guys said about him that he abandoned any plans to do his memoirs. So, naturally, what we’ve heard about his life and times from the equivalent of the White House press corps tends to badmouth people who stood in his way. We had to wait around until Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions to find out, for instance, that Cleo had been, besides a sexpot, also a working queen who spoke nine languages, wrote some books, and cut a deal with the Nabataeans for oil rights in the Dead Sea. If television insists on going back so often into these forums, aqueducts, baths, and sewers, couldn’t we have a soupçon of re-visionism instead of yet another commercial for empire-building?
If Hollywood has learned anything about the classical world, it’s that it’s hard to wear both a toga and a straight face. The chosen garb of Rome has costumed actors as far back as MGM’s silent 1926 Ben-Hur. But “swords-and-sandals” epics withered in the sixties and seventies, thanks to Italian B-movies like Hercules Against the Mongols and Bob Guccione’s quasi-porno Caligula. And just when 2000’s Gladiator seemed to spark a toga comeback, flops like Troy and Alexander are sending the drapey wrap back into mothballs—a costume now more closely associated with John Belushi than with Marcus Brutus. Et tu, Bluto?
HBO. Sundays at 9 P.M.
Premieres August 28.