It’s not often that you see a woman voluntarily drenched in the blood of a just-slaughtered bull. And that’s one of the tamer scenes in HBO’s superb first season of Rome, which, much like fellow HBO series Deadwood, revels in what lies beneath the myth of an iconic age — the dirt, if you will, under the fingernails of history. Rome got respectable ratings when it aired, but suffered, I think, from its perception as a musty costume drama. Ha! You want dancing girls and Machiavellian power struggles, gallows humor and severed body parts (plus a smattering of heads on spikes)? Rome is The Sopranos in togas, right down to one character’s declaration: ”Pullo’s dead to me.”
The date is 52 B.C., one of the most turbulent periods of Rome’s 700-year history. In re-creating this at once sophisticated and brutal society — not to mention one of the most complex political and social structures the world had seen — the creators wisely took an Upstairs, Downstairs approach, dividing the story between the nobility and the plebeians. As played by the aristocratic Ciarán Hinds (Munich), Gaius Julius Caesar is a dictator you can really get behind; I haven’t liked a commander this much since Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. On the pleb front, you have unlikely friends Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), soldiers in Caesar’s army. The relatively unknown actors take what are essentially vicious killers and imbue them with a sweetness and pathos that can be heartbreaking.
The cast, though exceptional from top to bottom, nonetheless has stiff competition: This Rome — pornographic graffiti and all — is a seething, fetid, gaudy, and altogether splendid character all its own. It reminds me of New York City’s Lower East Side circa 1983 — with more corpses. And there are a lot of corpses. This is not a show for the fainthearted (decapitations are the least of it). Nor is it for the genteel: The nudity is frequent, the sex explicit and enthusiastic (as in gamine Cleopatra’s hilarious romp with Italian stallion Pullo).
Other than giving you a good accounting of this production’s reported $100 million budget (money very well spent, for once), the bonus tracks are fairly pedestrian. But a show like Rome is what DVDs were made for. It demands repeated viewings (especially the dense first episode — you might want to start with the more spirited episode 2, then go back to No. 1). The lavish, detailed costumes alone are too much to digest in one viewing. Think of the series as one of those Roman banquets where you gorge yourself, take a break to chuck it all up, then return for more. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor should it be watched in one.