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Arts and Entertainment

DVD Review: Rome - The Complete First Season

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If you haven't noticed, HBO is currently rebroadcasting season one of "Rome" and while it is worth it to watch the episodes on TV you will miss quite a lot. HBO and the BBC teamed up to bring this John Milius/Bruno Heller creation to the screen. Filmed in 35mm it is the most completely detailed and character driven effort to recreate imperial Rome since the abstract, studio-bound 1970s effort, "I Claudius", based on the widely respected and famous translator of ancient Roman texts, Robert Graves.

Everything in "Rome" is real, or at least as real as it can be: the armor is handmade out of leather and metal; the "soldiers" went through several weeks of boot camp living as centurions in tents, in the mud, next to a lake, with no hot water, in winter; the horse saddles have no stirrups since they weren't invented yet; the Forum set is a full six acres, largest set in the world, and the extras are all Romans; the graffiti on the walls is recreated from period graffiti found in Rome and Pompeii; etc. The detail is incredibly breathtaking and the attention and care paid by the set and costume designers is more than obvious.

The dialogue is formal but not annoyingly classicalized, and the characterizations are well crafted - senators and soldiers are humanized and interact as close to real people as I have seen in any production on ancient Rome. Cato, Cicero, Brutus, Pompey, and Mark Anthony interact with each other, they don't orate at each other.

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The two "everyman" characters, centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, are based on historical figures that Julius Caesar himself wrote about in the history of his campaigns in Gaul. Lucius Vorenus is played by Kevin McKidd, the only actor American audiences will probably recognize, from his role as Tommy, the junkie who dies of AIDS in "Trainspotting." Since not much more is known about these two soldiers other than Caesar’s entries, a lot of necessary and well-done liberties are taken to make their storyline flesh out "Rome." Their characters are dynamic and interesting and I genuinely want to know what is going to happen with them in season two.

In terms of the patrician nobles, while a complete historical picture of their relationships and actions is not available, there is quite a lot that has been accurately established, and here is where the creators and writers have missed some opportunities and made some mistakes.

Octavia, sister of Octavian (who would grow up to be the Emperor Augustus), and grand-niece of Julius Caesar, is one such example. The writers decided to make her a sexual object who couples with Caesar's co-consul, Pompey, on the whim of her mother Atia; she then has an ongoing lesbian relationship with Caesar's longtime mistress Servilia; Servilia then compels Octavia to commit incest with her brother Octavian. Sure, it's dramatic, but there is absolutely no historical evidence of her being such a toy/psychopath - the evidence is that she was loyal to her family and brother, the future emperor, and a devoted mother to her own and her adopted children.

Her mother, Atia, is depicted as a scheming, back-stabbing nymphomaniac who is the regular booty-call to Mark Anthony, as well as various servants and stablehands: while this is dramatically convenient, it never happened.

The noblewoman Servilia, long-established as the love of Caesar's life by both historians as well as Caesar's own writings and poetry, is beaten and abandoned by Caesar (never happened) which sets her on a course of revenge to plot the assassination of Caesar - while it is true that Brutus was her son, a post-assassination investigation proved her innocence.

What would have been more interesting to explore and historically accurate to boot, was the fact that Brutus was married to the daughter of the fervently anti-Caesar Senator Cato - and based on the historical fact that parents, especially fathers, had a tremendous amount of influence on their offspring, isn't it more plausible that Brutus' wife would have been a voice urging him to revenge her dead father?

In terms of spectacle, the writers also missed the opportunity to highlight the visit to Rome of Cleopatra, and her son (via Caesar) Caesarion.

Most irritating was the assassination of Caesar on the floor of the Senate - this absolutely didn't happen, and the conspirators very deliberately _didn't_ murder Caesar in the Senate for many political and religious reasons which the screenwriters chose to avoid.

I'll admit that I'm a pompous ass since I've recently read Seutonius and Tacitus, and really, the very few misgivings above do not detract from a series whose every moment I enjoyed.

The DVD features only further fed my extreme nerdiness and would actually prove very helpful to anyone. The usually dreaded audio commentaries are pretty good, particularly the ones featuring producer and chief writer Bruno Heller and historical consultant Jonathan Stamp as well as a bit more color commentary from actor Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo).

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The real meat is in the interactive guide, "All Roads Lead To Rome", which provided plenty of historical facts and cultural tidbits - you can't imagine my glee when the prompt "Press ENTER To Learn More About Flogging" appeared. If only the DVD producers had thought to provide an option to combine the audio commentary and the interactive guide so that I wouldn't have watch each episode up to three times to get all the content.

Other bonus features include a couple shot-by-shot analysis', some photo galleries, as well as an insightful mini-documentary regarding the building of the monstrous Forum set.

"Rome", as broadcast, provides plenty of drama if that's all you want. The DVD set provides you with tools to access both the history and the details to the extent that you wish. It's well put together with some room for improvement - let's see what they do with Season Two.

"Rome" returns to HBO, Sunday, January 14th, at 9:00p.m.

Movie still of "Rome" via HBO.com