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The Rise of Rome

The greatness of HBO's other historical drama.

11:00 PM, Jan 11, 2007 • By SONNY BUNCH
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The second season of HBO's sword-and-sandal series Rome picks up right where the first season left off: drenched in blood, Julius Caesar lays dead on the floor of the Senate. With the death of the tyrant, the Republic teeters on the edge of chaos. Marc Antony and Octavian, the newly adopted heir of Caesar, face off against the patriarchs of the Senate, each vying to rally the mob to their side.

The strength of Rome, however, lays not so much in the power struggles of the wealthy landed class, but in the day to day struggles of soldier Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Vorenus mourns for his dead wife, who has taken her life rather than live with the shame she would incur for birthing a child by a man other than her husband. Vorenus and Pullo stumble around the empire like a pair of ancient Forrest Gumps, rubbing elbows with the most famous Romans of their day. Through their eyes we are privy to a totally alien world: Christianity will not be invented for another 60 or so years, but religion rules the day. The pagan masses will do anything to please their Gods and avoid maladies. (When Vorenus is charged by Marc Antony with bringing the various criminal bosses under control he refers to himself as a son of Hades so as to inspire fear in his enemies.)

The first four episodes of the new season also seem to herald an examination of Judaism in the time of Augustus Caesar. Hired goon, Timon, was the only prominent Jewish character from the first season, and the arrival of his overtly religious brother provokes a crisis of conscience in the murderous henchman.

While Rome tries to stick reasonably close to historical events, facts are sometimes sacrificed for the sake of the narrative. Consider the portrayal of Octavius' mother, Atia: Instead of a remarried, religious woman who doubted that her son should accept Caesar's wealth (Suetonius tells us that Octavian "entered upon his inheritance, despite his mother's doubts and the active opposition of his step-father"), she is portrayed as a power-mad matriarch who will do anything to assure her position in Roman society. But, generally speaking, the characters are true to their historical images and the basic events remain largely intact, if somewhat streamlined. (This streamlining can be bothersome--sometimes months or years can go by without any narrative explanation. In the fourth episode of the season, for example, a new, slightly older actor takes over the role of Octavian without warning.)

MINOR INACCURACIES aside, Rome is a fascinating show. One of the more interesting themes it touches on is the ancient society's social hierarchy. In the first season, while Pompey speaks with Brutus, the younger man goes out of his way to remind the consul that, even though he holds the highest office in the land, he's still no aristocrat. As such, Pompey enjoys the rougher things in life, like gladiatorial combat. This season, when Vorenus is addressing a den of thieves who inhabit Rome's main marketplace, the Avantine, they note that he is a man of great "gravity," and ask for his respect in return. Knowing that doing so would lower him to the level of his enemies, Vorenus offers the criminals cash instead.



It would be nice if Rome's producers would examine pay this theme a bit more attention. Those interested in more about life in an honor-driven society should read J.E. Lendon's Empire of Honour. It makes an excellent reading companion for Rome.



While Rome isn't the best historical drama produced by HBO (that honor goes to the network's now-cancelled western, Deadwood), it is still more interesting than almost anything on network television.



Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.