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''Rome'' is HBO's hope to reclaim Sunday nights

”Rome” is HBO’s hope to reclaim Sunday nights — The historical epic is one of the most ambitious TV series in history, having spent seven years and $100 million

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Rome Photograph by Daniel Smith

This is the story of an ancient Roman leader whose hubris is matched only by a network that would spend a record-breaking $100 million on 12 episodes of a drama. It’s a tale that involves rains of biblical proportions, the producers of the movie Chicago, the studio where the legendary film Ben-Hur was shot, and — naturally — some paparazzi.

But let’s start with the oxen droppings. It’s a cold November day on the set of Italy’s famed Cinecittà Studios where HBO’s new historical drama Rome is shooting. Fortunately, a pair of 2,200-pound beasts hauling a Gallic POW have kindly waited until the cameras stopped rolling before relieving themselves in front of Julius Caesar and the entire Roman senate. But that’s the only lucky break the crew will get today. Nearby, 750 toga-and chain-mail-garbed extras are whipping out cameras to shoot photos of the picturesque five-acre set — an impressive re-creation of the ancient Roman Forum that boasts three pagan temples and a basilica. Over by the triumphal arch, some of the Italian boys dressed as legionnaires are finding uncinematic uses for their prop bows and arrows. And just as the cameras are about to take a bird’s-eye view of Caesar riding his golden chariot across the piazza, a helicopter carrying video-equipped paparazzi swoops over the set to steal a few shots of its own for Italian TV.

As the Cinecittà staff scrambles to shoo away the aerial intruders, Rome‘s star James Purefoy (Vanity Fair) waits patiently at the base of the senate steps. ”It’s sort of a professional hazard when you do something like this,” he says, as the helicopter finally retreats. ”On a day like today, it brings everything into perspective. You remember it’s not a chamber piece anymore. It’s a big epic.”

It took more than a century for the Roman empire to fall and about that long in Hollywood time — seven years — to bring it to life as a television drama. The holdup started with HBO, which received the script from The Huntress‘ Bruno Heller in 1998 but sat on it for three years while deciding whether it was worth it to air, much less turn into a series. Once the network okayed the script, there was the issue of that film-budget-like price tag, which was eventually resolved when co-producer BBC agreed to help pay for the shoot and such essentials as a historical consultant (who provided insight into the era — like that Caesar was a bit of a dandy and reputed to be bisexual), a military adviser (to turn those Italian extras into believable legionnaires), and a tireless costume crew (somebody’s got to haul around those 36-pound tunics for Caesar’s men). ”If there is an HBO style, it’s a merciless attention to the truth and reality of things,” says Heller.

But the pay cabler’s slow pace — no doubt influenced by the pressure to develop another zeitgeisty drama like The Sopranos — gave another network the opportunity to build an Empire of its own. By 2002, ABC had decided to embark on an eight-part toga epic produced by Academy Award winners Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (Chicago) and featuring many of the same characters as Rome. Both battled for production space in Italy (HBO snagged Cinecittà, where Charlton Heston pranced about in leather skirts and sandals in 1959, while ABC had to settle for the less impressive Roma Studios) and both held auditions in England — the London-based Purefoy, for example, was offered the role of Mark Antony in both productions. ”Of all the gin joints, they had to walk into ours,” says HBO entertainment president Carolyn Strauss. ”Everything was going great and then comes this.” ABC’s zeal to get its project on the air first didn’t pay off, however: Cut down from eight hours to six because of financial constraints, Empire was all but buried by the time it debuted in June to a weak 6.3 million viewers.