When it comes to historical costume dramas, it may well be that HBO does it best.
What Rome does, which is very similar to what its successor, Game of Thrones, does, is present the viewer with a world that is unapologetically old. There are no American values a la Gladiator here to be rammed down the viewer’s throat. Roman politics is not treated as a “good vs. evil” story. The issues are treated with the complexity they deserve, and each side’s case is made well and succinctly.
The story revolves around the war between Caesar and Pompey. In many other depictions, Caesar is either portrayed as a people’s hero trying to free the Roman people from the oppression of the rich citizens or an egomaniacal tyrant obsessed with his own power who is undermining the principles of the Roman Republic. In this version of the story, Caesar is both at once–a good man who believes in a good cause and who is gracious and merciful in victory, but also an arrogant man blinded by his own perceived magnificence. This show presents what is undoubtedly the most complex and likable depiction of Caesar to date.
And most of the other characters are treated with similar understanding and nuance. The story is told primarily through the lens of two Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. Both are a mix of good and bad. Vorenus is honorable to a fault (a Roman Ned Stark, if you will), but also excessively jealous of his wife, and cold with his family. Pullo is a loyal friend, but is also a simple-minded brute who is prone to fits of violent rage at the worst of times.
Rome was obviously filmed on a low budget, and it shows–as in Game of Thrones, major pivotal battles are excised completely. Yet Rome makes up for this weakness in other ways. For one thing, its attention to detail is astounding. The makers of this show pour in enough details about Roman life to make it clear that this was truly a labor of love.
The show is not without its weak moments. Though the last two epsidoes are stunning, as are the first two, somewhere in the middle rome begins to drag a bit. Characters begin to behave in ways that are jarring and, in some cases, unbelievable, which is a shame considering that strong character development is typically a hallmark of Rome. Two characters begin a lesbian affair, which comes out of nowhere and continues despite the fact that the show has already established that both women are sexually attracted to men–not to mention the fact that one of these women is about thirty years older than the other. A way to raise the ratings? Perhaps. HBO has been known at times (lots of times) to throw in random nudity solely for the sake of titillation (no pun intended). Earlier in the film, Mark Antony bares all for the most awkward five-minute conversation you will ever see. Could this scene have workes just as well had he been wearing his clothes? Probably. Why was he naked, then? I’ve got no answers.
The verdict is that it’s not quite at the same level as Game of Thrones–there’s not the same degree of forward momentum, though that could just be because we all know how Rome is going to end, at least in part. Like Game of Thrones, Rome saves a few too many major plot twists for the end of the season, leaving a middle that is good, but won’t keep you anywhere near the edge of your seat. The general lack of sword-fighting doesn’t help matters.
Nevertheless, Rome is a great show. A few may quibble about historical inaccuracies, but when it comes to that, this series probably has the smallest number of historical inaccuracies of any Roman film or show I’ve yet seen, and all of them are in service to the story.