USA/2005; R4 (6-disc)
Warner Bros, $99.95 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

IT’S QUITE surprising that not many people have thought of tackling the Roman Civil War before, though obviously many have taken on the infamous Ides of March. The tale of two friends Pompey and Julius Caesar, united by a familial bond, the two most powerful figures in the most powerful city state in Europe, who eventually collapse the Roman Republic through their struggle. (Of course, I’m not mentioning the crucial Triumvirate figure of Crassus, who is ignored by the series makers). Two immensely powerful people who despite not wanting war, seemed fated to bring the empire to its knees. It’s the type of story that screams epic coverage. Thankfully, HBO tackled this task with their incredibly ambitious Rome, and for the most part pull it off.

The first season covers the immediate source of tension between Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) and Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), the Civil War, right the way through to the Ides of March. It focuses specifically on a limited palette of characters – a couple of nobility, such as Caesar’s niece, the conniving Atia (Polly Walker), her long-suffering daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon) and the precociously intelligent Octavian (in this season played by Max Pirkis); and a couple of “lower” classed soldiers and their family. As a result, the script does take a few liberties in condensing down Roman history to these few characters (eg. the assassination attempt on Mark Antony was put down to a personal grudge against giant soldier Titus Pullo). Some of the coincidences require a little suspension of disbelief, but overall the equal time given to nobility and ordinary folk makes for an interesting dynamic. Perhaps more at the start could have been used to set up the relationship between Pompey and Caesar before it degenerates, because it did feel that since the series tried so hard to maintain fidelity to the historical events, we don’t really get to empathise with the tragedy of these two friends as much as we could have. (I must have admit Crassus would have been a fascinating addition, if slightly impossible given the complexity of the show already.)

The major selling point of the show is the sex and violence. And it’s true, there is considerable nudity (both men and women) and graphic violence. But it’s all part of the milieu – those who’ve seen some of the more extreme depictions of Rome such as Caligula or Gladiator won’t necessarily be surprised. However, compared to those tales, Rome feels more real, perhaps because so much of the budget was spent on trying to get the little things right, rather than on big set-pieces. This show after all did have a five acre set built for it. Consequently we get to feel the streets of Rome, see the graffiti, feel the cobblestones, see the hustle and bustle – if it’s not entirely historically accurate (I don’t know, I’d have to have a classical background), it still feels authentic. This does mean significant moments like the Battle of Pharsalus are down-played visually when you’d probably expect otherwise. But then again (and this benefits from having the time as a mini-series) Rome does manage to fit a large part of history into the mix (even if purists might wonder at the some of the omissions). The Senate in particular is nicely created, and there’s a good feel for the politics of the era.

There are also other nice touches too, such as using different English accents to highlight the class divisions. The direction isn’t flashy either – the history, set design and the characterisations are interesting enough, without having to resort to overshadowing this with flashy camera work. The acting is very good too, in particular, a deliciously conniving Polly Walker, and the seemingly sculptured face of Hinds as Caesar (though he is a bit more hirsute than the famously balding Caesar). This is a fine production, effortlessly showcasing HBO’s position as the best TV channel at the moment.

THE DVD is also packed with extras across its six discs. In fact, it is so packed that I can’t do justice to them all here (but it does include eight commentaries, five featurettes, an entire disc of extras, photos, introductions to characters, text commentary etc.) – needless to say, there’s so much here that anyone who’s a fan of the show, would not be disappointed. The extra features also give plenty of information for wannabe and probably well-versed Classical scholars.