HBO builds a television empire with epic, honest Rome

By Oliver Mosier

“Hail Caesar!” After years of unrest, this cry marked a people yearning for stability. Centuries have passed since the inception of the Roman Republic, and the Republic’s death is imminent. Gaius Julius Caesar possesses an army of unbelievable skill and loyalty, resulting from eight long years spent fighting in Gaul. Tyranny is on the horizon. This is the subject of the new joint venture between HBO and the BBC. The series, Rome, focuses on the major players during the civil war and the fall of the Republic. Bruno Heller, the creator of the show, takes liberties necessary to facilitate a successful drama, but Rome still retains a keen sense of realism. For the most part, Rome is grounded in history, and the debauchery and cruelty of a pre-Christian culture resonates with the audience. The cast of characters includes Caesar, his niece Atia, Marc Antony, Pompey Magnus, Brutus, his mother Servillia, Cato, Cicero and of course, Caesar’s grand nephew, Octavian, the future Emperor of Rome. While these major Romans dominated history, the show focuses on two Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. The two soldiers were actually mentioned by Julius Caesar in his record of the wars in Gaul, De Bello Gallico.

Pullo and Vorenus, played by Ray Stevenson and Kevin McKidd, represent the noble Roman everyman, who are forced to choose sides in the civil war. Their story is one that is often overlooked in historical texts. The series brilliantly documents and dramatizes the events that torn Rome apart, only to see it reclaim its dominance. The two men illustrate the extremes of Roman loyalty and Roman debauchery. Vorenus is the prototypical solider while Pullo remains an impulsive man. Their story is beautifully woven into the fabric of Roman politics. Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) presents the audience with a deeply pensive and calculating politician. His niece, Atia, is reminiscent of another Italian—Tony Soprano’s narcissistic mother, Livia.

Relating to a world so far removed to us is extremely difficult, but capturing such a world honestly is even harder. Bruno Heller has done just that. Like HBO dramas before it, crisp writing coupled with excellent acting is surely the recipe for success.

Timing is indeed everything—Caesar chose quite a moment to seize absolute control. While his boldness and arrogance is evident, the calculating and ingenious Octavian looms in the background. When one story ends (Caesar’s), another one begins (Octavian’s). For now, that time has not yet arrived. The show is presently focused on the end of the civil war and Caesar’s ascension to the throne.

It is difficult to fathom a world whose values run contrary to our own. Despite our knowledge of the ending of this story, it remains compelling nonetheless. For me, knowing the end does not hinder my interest. While there is so much knowledge at our disposal concerning Roman times, there is much that we will never know. Rome imagines the lives and events that have been lost to history. Seeing Rome is not a substitute for history class. However, that should not be an indicator of what makes a drama great. (One must recall that the historical inaccuracies and creative liberties taken by William Shakespeare do not limit the impact and brilliance of his plays.) The purpose of a drama is not to educate, but rather to resonate. It must touch on the emotions and sympathies of the viewer. Rome is by no means an equivalent of Shakespeare—its dramatic lineage is much more recent, tracing directly from the HBO line that stems from The Sopranos, leading to Deadwood and finally reaching the city along the Tiber.

Dramas attempt to present truths about mankind through individuals, and not necessarily to give us specific truths about specific men. While some of the latter may occur, it is not the aim. After his death, the legacy of Gaius Julius Caesar lived on, in the title of Roman emperors for centuries, the Czars of Russia, and the Kaisers of Germany. Now it lives on in an HBO original series.