Rome is not afraid to overdo it. There are clashing swords, flashing robes, and humming markets. There’s a bounty of flesh: screwing, bathing, bouncing, writhing. And there’s a load of exposition, so much that Rome sometimes feels like it was written by a particularly awful color commentator who won’t shut up and let us enjoy the game. Odd, since the premise of HBO’s 12-part series is pretty simple: It is 52 B.C. Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), beloved after his eight-year war in Gaul, is back to challenge Senate leader Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham) for control of Rome. Meanwhile, two of Caesar’s soldiers, roguish Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and surly family man Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), have returned home to basically provide reg’lar-guy story lines for those of us who are scared of history.
I will say it once, and then be done: I, Claudius, the BBC miniseries that aired in the States in 1977, is the best program ever set in ancient Rome — and it rarely left the palace walls. That’s because writer Jack Pulman (working from Robert Graves’ novels) knew that the treacherous, decadent royals were where the action was. The common-man approach can work — it did in Gladiator — but it ignores the drama inherent to the period. It’s like Dynasty focusing on the groundskeeper and his haggard wife while we can see Alexis and Krystle ripping out fistfuls of each other’s hair in the background. (That show didn’t get good either till they dropped Krystle’s lower-class backstory and got fizzily mansion-centric.)
That said — thank you, I do feel better — Rome throws in plenty of soapiness to keep us invested in Vorenus’ story. His wife (Indira Varma), for instance, may have been unfaithful while he was away. But things don’t perk up until episode 3, when the belabored battle talks lessen — and posh, acidic Polly Walker (Control) gets going as Julius Caesar’s niece Atia. She’s a wealthy, scheming mother of two who regularly beds Mark Antony (gnashing James Purefoy) and coerces her wimpy son, Octavian (Master and Commander’s Max Pirkis), into eating manly-making goat balls in hopes he’ll start exhibiting signs of greatness. For his part, the young actor’s work is cause for optimism: One of the best reasons to watch Rome, Pirkis looks like an impish Doogie Howser, B.C., and he makes Octavian petulant, curious, and remorseless as a child god.
Rome is most entertaining when it laces its wild, ancient antics with winks of the pedestrian: It’s amusing to watch poor Octavian forced to join the goat-testes Clean Plate Club under his scolding mother’s gaze. But it’s simply fantastic when Atia, her house besieged by Pompey’s men and her guests ready to commit honor-preserving suicide, whips into Martha Stewart mode. Like a good hostess casually taking drink orders, she wanders among her guests asking who will kill whom. ”Castor, be sure to cut Octavia’s throat before you cut mine,” she huffs after her bitter teenage daughter refuses to expose her throat to Mum. Not since poisonous monarch Livia suggested her son avoid the figs has there been such lovely understatement attached to such monstrous doings.