Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century
Rome. Directed by Allen Courter and others. Starring Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Potty Walker and Ciaran Hinds.
Rome is over. Not just the republic, but the TV show. Despite solid ratings and Golden Globe nominations, the popular cable series ended last year. HBO, the BBC and the Italian RAI had teamed up to offer two seasons of ten episodes each about ancient Rome. Now the series is available on DVD.
Gone are the tacky swords-and-sandals portrayals of the ancient world. The producers of Rome favor not only realistic battle scenes but British accents, graphic sex and characters to care about. They also brilliantly illustrate the world into which the Christian church emerged.
The series begins with the battlefield triumphs of Julius Caesar over "barbarians" in northern Europe and ends with his adopted nephew Octavian's ascension to emperor with his victory over Mark Antony. But it concentrates very little on these highlights of history and instead burrows into the lives of several interrelated characters--especially Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stephenson), rivals-turned-friends within the legions who serve at the sides of sometimes allied, sometimes competing consuls. The two challenge and console one another through hard times as they lead a band of soldiers in charge of the Aventine Hill and its control of Rome's trade.
Other prominent characters include a family conniving enough to make American politicians seem chaste: Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) has a lover, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker), who becomes the lover of Mark Antony (James Purefoy), who marries Atia's daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon) and abandons them both for the irresistibly seductive Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal). This isn't the Rome of your boring Latin class and it's not exactly accurate history. But it is a Rome that is passionately, dangerously alive.
And this Rome is not irreligious. What Christians would come to call pagan practice is replete throughout the series. Rome shows Roman religion to be much like ours: often practiced with fidelity, often practiced for an ulterior motive, and always passionately argued over. The Roman religion portrayed here is not at all that decayed, rotting hulk that a generation of historians portrayed, a religion that toppled in the face of Christianity. When Vorenus in anger casts a curse on his children, Pullo tries to comfort him: "Well, at least you didn't sacrifice a chicken. …