One of the more unusual shows I saw on DVD last year was the first season of Rome. As soon as you pick up the box, you realise that it’s not designed for everyone. It shows a pair of Roman-sandalled feet standing on cobble-stone streets running with blood and (in Australia), it has a rather large R rating on the front warning you about the sex and violence.
This clever series weaves a mixture of fictional/non-fictional events starting with Julius Caesar’s victory in Gaul all the way through to his eventual assassination in the Senate. The very fact that there is a long rise and fall arc in the series immediately makes it more interesting than a regular TV series, with its “let’s fix all problems in the one episode” set-up.
It follows all the famous true-life characters in this drama: Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies) and Co. Then there’s the fictional characters: a couple of Roman soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). In addition, there are some spectacularly revenge-driven women in the story: Atia (Polly Walker) and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan). There are lots more characters (it’s quite a large ensemble), but these are the main players, whose lives connect and intersect over 13 hours.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can enjoy this for the convoluted, twisting plot. Or you might enjoy the historical detail – especially if you have the DVD, where you can turn on a feature called “All Roads Lead To Rome”, which puts up informative historical facts on the screen while you’re watching.
On the whole, I found it a show that gave me mixed emotions – primarily because of the writing. The two main creators of the show, Bruno Heller and Jonathan Stamp point out many times on their commentaries and extra features that they deliberately set out to create a world where Judeo-Christian morality did not exist. And so they have written their Romans to sometimes act like us (e.g. wives, romance, business intrigue) and then sometimes not (e.g. beating slaves, killing people with no compassion). Because all the actors speak with perfect English accents, this enhances the feeling that these people are real, so when they suddenly turn savage, it’s quite a shock.
I think Heller and Stamp secretly like the Romans unbridled way of living (especially the sex), but obviously feel uncomfortable with the violence that went with it. To my mind, don’t the two go hand in hand? If you have unrestraint in one area of society, why would you hold back in another? To be honest, what this series did do for me was explain quite clearly how Christianity ripped through Rome and took hold. It would have only taken a few Christians committed to caring for people around them and looking after those less fortunate than themselves, and they would have stuck out like a sore thumb, and caused major social change.
4 out of 5.