…and so Sunday, March 25, 2007 marked the end of one of the greatest television shows ever produced, Rome.
A massive and sprawling co-production of HBO and the BBC filmed on location on elaborate and wildly expensive sets in Italy, Rome spanned two seasons and close to two decades of ancient history. Essentially, this was a 22-hour feature film, quite unlike anything ever done before, and probably nothing that comes after it will ever compare. Full of ferocious violence, scintillating sex, politics, war, and scores of nudity, Rome was both ribald and regal, presenting a pulsing, bleeding and frightfully alive view of Roman history from Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul to (Augustus) Octavian Caesar’s triumph over the rebel Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
The show took much liberty with history, creating liaisons both sexual and political which most likely never existed, and presented much of the complex and intertwining stories through the eyes of Titus Pullo (played by a virulent but jolly Ray Stevenson) and Lucious Vorenus (played with a stoic self-hatred by Kevin McKidd)–fictional soldiers of Rome whose lives went on tragic roller coasters with the rise and fall of power. Everyone will have their favorite side story or character (I particularly grew fond of Posca and Jocasta in the end), and the final episode culminated with all the grand drama you would expect from the double suicide of Antony and Cleopatra. It was a scenario done many times over by some of the greatest writers in history and put to film before, but never done with so much realistic gusto, gritty spectacle, and true emotion.
Like all great soap operas that have tackled ancient history, Rome featured an awesome cast of finely tuned British thespians:
Polly Walker was simply amazing as the highly fictionalized and slanderous take on Atia-the scheming, manipulative, and powerful niece of Julius Caesar and mother to Octavian. Her quietly tragic story arc ultimately made her sympathetic despite all the evil things she had done. Her closing line to Livia about “far greater women than you have plotted against me” in the final episode made me want to cheer. Walker’s performance was juicy and salacious fun without ever resorting to scenery chewing.
James Purefoy was a pitch perfect Marc Antony, showcasing the character as a ruthless madman of a general beloved by his people and an ineffective politician whose greatest weapon was his ability to put fear into the Senate and nobility. He delivered his lines with equal parts pomposity and deadpan humor. His, “Now that’s an exit,” upon seeing Servilia commit suicide outside of Atia’s house was nothing short of classic.
Lyndsey Marshall presented us with a writhing, seething depiction of Cleopatra, demure and charming in public, debaucherous and raging in private, multi-faceted and more real than any past portrayal of the infamous Egyptian queen. Here we saw a woman desperately seeking to hold onto a crumbling empire, using her intelligence, charm, and sexuality to gain political pull. When she gives her dying breaths to Octavian after kissing the asp and tells him, “You have a rotten soul,” you know she means it, and by the look in his eyes, she’s made him believe it.
Kerry Condon as a flighty but endearing Octavia, Lindsay Duncan as an arrogant and self-aggrandizing Servilia, Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar, Tobias Menzies as sniveling Brutus, the exotically beautiful Indira Varma as Niobe, Ian McNiece as the overly dramatic and sometimes comical Forum Newsreader, and Max Pirkis and later Simon Woods as Octavian were simply perfect in their roles as were the hundreds of others playing the fascinating parade of lively fictional and historical characters.
After Octavian’s triumph, the final episode closes on a slightly false note presenting us with an alternative view of documented facts that plays on the more fanciful connections made between the fictional characters and the actual history. Still, it was a grand finale to a truly superb series that will be sorely missed. Nero and Caligula, we didn’t even get to know you.
Written by David H. Schleicher