HBO'S NEXT EMPIRE: All Roads Lead to 'Rome': Can the Channel's $100 Million Bet Sing like a Soprano? Ratings Are Down 18 Percent. but Don't Cry for the Pay-Cable Juggernaut. This Fall, It Reloads with Two New Shows-A Killer Drama and an Extra-Special Comedy-And Says So Long, for Now, to a Budding, Buzz-Worthy Hit

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Byline: Marc Peyser (With Dana Thomas in Rome)

Ah, the glory that was Rome. The temples. The togas. The toilets . Rome in 52 B.C. usually means emperors and palaces and dudes with bad haircuts, and you'll see plenty of those when HBO debuts its new drama "Rome" on Aug. 28. "Rome" is a show that will make every history teacher proud. It cost $100 million, and you can see every denarius on the screen--even the coins themselves, which were minted in the basement of the actual Vatican. The entire Forum has been reconstructed (at two-thirds scale), and Cleopatra's Alexandria gets a close-up, too. You want togas? They've got 'em, along with 3,000 other costumes, made only of fabrics that existed 2,057 years ago, though costume designer April Ferry admits she cheated when it came to vintage dyes. "Back then," she says, "they used urine." Which brings us back to the toilets. HBO has even rebuilt the city latrine, a huge, open, unisex space with benches along the walls and sponges on sticks. Not much of the show transpires in the loo--thank God --but it does serve a symbolic purpose. "Rome" is clearly a series that isn't afraid to get down and dirty.

That's exactly what you'd expect from HBO, home to the most down-and-dirty buddy comedy ("Sex and the City"), Western ("Deadwood") and family drama ("The Sopranos") in TV history. HBO is obviously hoping that "Rome" will enter that pantheon, and it'd better. It is the most expensive first-year series ever produced, and the channel so wants to amortize the cost of all those temples. But HBO also needs a big hit--badly. With "The Sopranos" entering its (allegedly) final season and the departure of "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under," the channel is running out of water-cooler shows. Many of its programs--"Deadwood," "The Wire," "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage"--are critical hits, but none of them is burning up the ratings. In fact, HBO's prime-time viewership is down 18 percent in the last year. "We're in a very competitive universe right now," says Carolyn Strauss, HBO's president of entertainment. "We always need a hit. But everybody always does."

"Rome" deserves to be the next one, by Jupiter. The show is an ingenious amalgam of hard-core history and yummy soap opera, with lots of violence and sex. Think of it as "I, Claudius" on steroids and Viagra (and tons more substantial than ABC's cheesy series "Empire"). The series opens with Julius Caesar fighting in Gaul and plotting his return to Rome. Caesar is a man of the people, which scares the pants off the political establishment (who, come to think of it, don't actually wear pants). The most threatened of all is Pompey, a rival who happens to be married to Caesar's only daughter, who soon dies in childbirth, leaving him without an heir. You really can't make this stuff up!

In fact, while "Rome" works hard to stay true to the historical characters, the show isn't afraid of a little fiction. Along with the textbook political intrigue, "Rome" has also created a second layer of largely fictional stories centering on two soldiers, lusty Titus and soulful Lucius, who give the show an "Upstairs, Downstairs" effect by taking the show out of the temples and into the chaotic streets of the city. …