Forget pristine marble and blindingly white togas; Rome brings you a vision of the ancient empire that’s dirty, graffiti covered, and bloody.
A clear precursor to runaway successes like Spartacus, Rome ran two short seasons on HBO and brought us a vision of a culture that was alive and thriving. The first season focuses on the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and the rise of his heir Octavian, though to say that simplifies things far too much… Much like another HBO “costume” show Game of Thrones, there are many storylines that play out alongside Caesar’s that allow us to see several strata of Roman society: the nobility, the middle/merchant/soldier class, and the slaves who serve at the whim of those more powerful than them.
The storytelling is lush, the costumes gorgeous, and the setting rich and real-feeling. The parts of the city that we’re shown feel real. They’re dirty, crowded, and frequently have naughty graffiti scrawled on their walls.
The acting is also top-notch; this show gave me my first view of incredible actors such as Kevin McKidd (who played family-man Centurion Lucius Vorenus), Ray Stevenson (as the talented killer and hedonist Titus Pullo), and Polly Walker (as Caesar’s scheming niece Atia).
The second season shifts focus to the power struggle between Octavian and Caesar’s old friend Mark Antony. Unfortunately, the show’s run was cut short due to budgetary issues and it really shows in the second season where time is compressed so that things happen and change at dizzying speeds.
Overall, I highly recommend the show for the strength of its writing (even at its weakest, it’s far superior to most of what we see on TV) and as a gateway drug to making history accessible and exciting.