By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 18, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Rome: Franco Biciocchi

Julius Caesar is still dead. As Rome unfurls its second and final season — ave atque vale! — he lies in his blood in the Senate where he was slain at the end of season 1. (It’s a pity about the great dictator and all, but woe, woe, our grief lies even heavier in the loss of majestically dark Ciarán Hinds in the role.) The wife of the soldier-turned-senator Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) lies dead too, a suicide that has sent her husband — a tightly wound puppy even in the jolliest of times — around the bend with grief: Before our very eyes, that uptight stickler is rapidly going bonkers, declaring himself a son of Hades and scaring the bejupiter out of even his truest friend and fellow soldier, Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Everything, in other words, is still reliably rotten, wantonly carnal, and spectacularly costumed as HBO and the BBC resume their dramatic collaboration on the world’s largest standing film set at Italy’s Cinecittà Studios.

I wouldn’t expect anything less: The previous season thrust the ancient history of Rome’s pre-Christian elites, commoners, conquerors, and the conquered at contemporary viewers with a slap, a tickle, and a winking invitation to appreciate the similarities between then and now. Brutus’ mother, Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), helpfully identified in current ad posters as the ”murderer,” and Caesar’s niece Atia (Polly Walker), distinguished as the ”tramp,” are still at each other’s throats in a high-class catfight. And Mark Antony (James Purefoy) has coarsened into something of a mealy rock star in his preening and rutting (although anything that keeps Purefoy naked is fine with this admirer of Roman antiquity).

Still, there’s a danger that visitors to Rome may contract a mild case of Naughty Classy Cable Fatigue. The fortunes of Vorenus and his comrade Pullo now fluctuate with the regularity of a soap opera. Our interest in the competition between Servilia and Atia as Rome’s Biggest Bitches begins to flag. There are only so many ways for classy British actors to swear like Etruscan sailors (”We observe the f—ing decencies!” one brute exclaims in disgust as he listens to a rude, gossipy recounting of Caesar’s funeral) before the language blends with every c—sucking word ever heard on Deadwood or The Sopranos.

In such a climate, the man to watch is Caesar’s grandnephew and legal heir, Octavian (up-and-comer Max Pirkis), a coolly perceptive young scholar of political science who makes up in strategic instincts what he lacks in sexual magnetism. Soon enough, Pirkis (a cutie for the O.C. generation) will pass the thespian baton to a more mature-looking actor in the same role. For now, he’s the best of what to do when in Rome. B