According to Jonathan Stamp, Rome’s resident historical advisor, people who study the Roman Empire often find themselves thinking two things: “Golly, they’re so like us!” and “My gracious me, they’re so different!” Which – rather politely, it must be said – sums up this mini series perfectly. Co-produced by HBO and the BBC, Rome is a sumptuous feast, an ancient soap opera with characters we all recognise (rich bitches, scheming politicians, working-class yobs) acting in ways we don’t (having sex in front of their slaves, stabbing their enemies in public, raping peasant girls on the way home from battle).
Rome’s heroes, although we use the term loosely, are soldiers Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Veronus is a decent, intelligent sort, though he won’t hesitate to stab you in the throat if you look at him funny. Pollo, on the other hand, will stab you in the throat regardless. Together they become ensnared in the political wrangles of Ciarán Hinds’ self-declared Emperor, Julius Caesar, as he sees off fellow power-mongerer Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) and brings down not only Roman democracy but the Queen of Egypt and, eventually, himself. Phew!
Politics, sex, violence: Rome has it all. There’s a lot crammed into these 12 episodes; too much, in fact, with events in the first few unfolding with no regard for anyone who finds the descent into this brash, complicated culture a bit of a wrench. It’s lucky, then, that Polly Walker’s performance as the sly, sex-obsessed matriarch Atia provides enough of a lure to keep you watching. Together with Mark Antony (James Purefoy, coating his villainous role with so much relish he could serve it up in a burger), Atia is the true star of Rome, a vixen so determined to get her own way she puts Dynasty’s Joan Collins to shame.
But she’s not alone: Veronus and Pullo eventually steal your heart (particularly the murderous Pullo, the big lug), while the machinations of the Senate, incestuous affairs and general intrigue of the year 52 BC will keep you hooked. Who couldn’t love a show which has two characters stranded on a desert island escaping by building a raft out of human bodies? Genius.
BEST BIT The gory, gut-wrenching but sublime sequence of gladitorial combat which turns the hapless Pullo into a local hero.