"ROME," which premieres Sunday night on HBO -- a fact that, like ancient Roman graffiti, seems to have been plastered on every spare surface in town -- is the show that gave birth to "Deadwood": David Milch had proposed to HBO a series about lawlessness and order in the time of the Caesars and when told that the network already had a Roman project in the pipeline switched his sights to the Old West. As it happens, "Rome," which was created by John Milius -- whose interest in issues of gladiatorial manliness and troop loyalty has long been noted -- Bruno Heller and William J. Macdonald, is close in spirit to "Deadwood" in the way it attempts to portray a bygone time, not only its art and technology but its spirit and psychology.
Set in 57 BC, in the difficult twilight of the Republic and the dawn of the Empire, "Rome" starts slowly -- indeed, it stays slow, betraying a deliberation that marks it as a BBC co-production -- but rewards attention. If it is neither as deep nor as strange as "Deadwood" and lacks a performance as operatically grand as Ian McShane's, it nevertheless has the some of the same gathering force, and like the Milch show, and "The Sopranos" as well, gets you sympathetically interested in the fate of people for whom you should probably have no sympathy. Indeed, there are episodes here the latter show could import whole -- one concerning a loan shark, a deceptively quiet fellow wearing a thick gold chain -- feels like a pointed homage, and there is a clear shared interest in sex, violence and half-naked dancing girls.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
"Rome" -- A review of the HBO series "Rome" in Friday's Calendar section said it was set in 57 BC. The show is set in 52 BC.
I have long harbored a suspicion that nudity is contractually required of HBO series -- the people have to feel as if they're getting something for their money they can't see elsewhere -- and "Rome" does nothing to allay that. Here, of course, it's unusually appropriate, or at least traditional -- from the lurid history painters of the 19th century, to C.B. DeMille to "Gladiator," to ABC's sword-and-sandal summer miniseries "Empire," the Roman world has provided a pretext for vicarious thrills mixed with a hint of approbation -- the whole darn Satyricon.
"Rome" does not shirk this responsibility. Before you can say "veni, vidi, vici," there is Polly Walker, as the ambitious Atia, niece of Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), rising like a ripe Venus from her bath, as sullen teenage son Octavian (Max Pirkis) -- the future emperor Augustus Caesar -- nervously averts his eyes. Most of the show's other female stars will strip for their art, as well, along with many of the men -- full-frontally speaking, "Rome" is an (almost) equal opportunity employer.
The political intricacies of the show are not always easy to follow -- the Roman system was even more complicated than it seems here -- but it's generally easy to tell what side a character is on, at any given time. (Allegiances shift.) What's more important is that the characters are real characters -- not just historical resumes and accurate haircuts -- and that the historical bigwigs mix plausibly with the invented plebeians. And because they're not written to sound a single identifying note, because they show different and even contradictory facets in different situations, the people of "Rome" get more intriguing, more unknowable as you get to know them.
Octavian appears at first to embody a certain cliche about callow future dictators, but we soon see that he is also a kind of ancient-world policy wonk, who also likes to paint his sister's toenails, and is almost but not quite ready to stand up to a manipulative mother pushing him to learn the masculine arts, "how to fight and copulate and skin animals and so forth." Atia, for her part, though in many respects an "evil" character, feels like she's doing right by her family and that she's the only one of them with a lick of sense. Walker is not the show's central character -- though Atia is tireless in her efforts to become so -- but she is its star, as funny as she is horrible. And Hinds' Julius Caesar and James Purefoy's Marc Antony seem, for once, like the military rock stars they were, the latter the Keith to the former's Mick.
On occasion the show seems to be showing off its deep research -- even the sexual positions have been carefully selected -- as when Atia instructs a servant how to cook lamprey ("long enough to kill them, no more"), or Octavian uses the word "trivium" (the singular of "trivia") as if particularly to remind the viewer of its Roman roots, or a town crier inserts an advertisement into his spiel ("This month's public bread is supplied by the Caroline Brotherhood of Millers -- the Brotherhood uses only the finest flour; true Roman bread for true Romans"). But these things are somehow not irritating even when obvious.
If the metropolis does not teem quite so teemingly as it might, this is true of all but the costliest epics, and for the most part, the Rome of "Rome" seems like a place people actually live in. It feels like the bones of the modern Rome, recognizably Italian, with its painted walls and crooked spaces, cosmopolitan and busy, the Rome of Ovid, Juvenal and Plautus, a lively, nasty place. I haven't seen ancient ordinary life so well represented since "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and I am not being funny.
When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with strong advisories for language, sex and violence).
Kevin McKidd...Centurion Lucius Vorenus
Ray Stevenson...Legionnaire Titus Pullo
Ciaran Hinds...Gaius Julius Caesar
Kenneth Cranham...Pompey Magnus
Polly Walker...Atia of the Julii
James Purefoy...Mark Antony
Tobias Menzies...Marcus Junius Brutus