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Too often, when people think of period dramas they immediately think of Regency or Edwardian-era costume pieces like Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, stories about marriage matches and inheritance politics that present a sanitized version of life in a particular time period. Tudor-era pieces allow us to protest the murderous patriarchy that ground down six remarkable women in the name of a horrible man’s pride, and everyone loves the hardscrabble charm of Dickens’ London, where everyone is poor until they magically aren’t.
HBO’s Rome is very much not that kind of period drama. Incredibly violent yet remarkably fun to watch, it is a show that embraces the bloodiest, most decadent aspects of the time in which it is set, using ordinary avatars and realistic dirt and grime to tell a legendary story in the most human of terms. It is not your typical period drama, but, then again, it was never really meant to be.
Rome premiered on HBO back in 2005, just a few short months after Carnivale, the network’s first foray into what would ultimately become prestige fantasy, ended. And though Rome is quite different from the Dust Bowl-set tale about the impending apocalypse, it too was a series ahead of its time. A period drama that whole heartedly embraces many of the standard tropes of the genre, but makes them seem utterly badass by covering them in blood, Rome was utterly singular at the time it aired—and largely remains so today.
The series begins at the end of the First Triumvirate, when the three-way relationship between military leader Pompey, beloved man of the people Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), and the fantastically rich Crassus, fractures beyond repair. As Caesar heads home to Italy fresh from conquering Gaul, a complicated mix of conspiracies and betrayals begins, as the men jockey for power and try to tempt each other into being the first to break the peace between them.
This is a period in history that’s notable for the sheer number of legendary figures that populate it, and Rome takes great joy in bringing them all to life, from Caesar and Marc Antony (James Purefoy), to Cicero (David Bamber) and Cato (Karl Johnson), and even Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal) herself. The scale and detail of its sets and plots is generally awe inspiring, and the show positively delights in the smallest of details, right down to the graffiti that adorns the city’s walls and the blood that gushes from the wounds of bodies in the arena.
Yet, Rome is not content simply to retell the legendary tales of men like Caesar and Antony. Instead, it shows us their lives through a new perspective, reframing their stories through the odd-couple pairing of two soldiers in Caesar’s employ. These men, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), couldn’t be more dissimilar: The former is a strait-laced true believer in honor and the greatness of the Republic, while the latter is basically a St. Bernard dog given human form, a gregarious giant who loves nothing so much as women, booze, and stabbing something with a sword.
The deep, true emotional bond develops between the two men—who begin the story as members of the same military legion and end it as something close to brothers, with all the love and difficulty that entails—is both heartwarming and realistic, giving much of Rome an emotional heft it would likely never be able to command otherwise. We already know what happens to Caesar, after all, no matter how many heartrendingly conflicted speeches Brutus (Tobias Menzies) might make in advance of committing murder. The Season 1 finale is literally called “The Kalends of February,” so it’s not like the show is even trying to mislead its audience about when things are going to happen.
The show is a decadent romp, telling stories of politics, betrayal and scandalous romance, topped off with grisly displays of violence and a brutal honesty about the grim living conditions faced by the majority of the citizens who populate the Eternal City. It regularly killed off major characters, gave its women complex and powerful roles within the story (some of the show’s best performances come from Polly Walker, Kerry Condon, Lindsay Duncan, and Kerry Condon), and boasted both a scale and budget that was generally unprecedented for the time.
There’s a reason people keep comparing this series to Game of Thrones, is what I’m saying. Rome proved that high-brow, prestige television could successfully exist alongside tons of crowd-pleasing sex and violence. Rome walked so that one day, not so very long after, Thrones could fly.
Rome is also the reason that we now have shows like Vikings and Britannia, sweeping historical epics that heavily feature bloody battle sequences and sexualized court intrigue, the kind of period dramas specifically designed to appeal to male viewers as much as—if not more so—than female ones.
Did Rome make period dramas cool again? Not really—as a genre, this space has always been more interesting and subversive than most want to give it credit for. But it certainly pushed the boundaries of what a period story could be and do on television, and helped launch countless imitators in the years to come. Even Thrones itself, though based on popular novels and billed as a high fantasy, is little more than the War of the Roses with dragons, after all.
Because of its massive budget, Rome only ran for two seasons, though it was initially slated for five and its original ending was meant to involve Vorenus and Pullo arriving in Palestine in time for the birth of Christ. True, we may have dodged a bullet on that last bit (yikes?), but it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had the full story of the fall of Julius Caesar and the rise of the Caesar Augustus (Simon Woods) been allowed to play out over even a slightly longer time frame. But perhaps its abbreviated runtime was a gift in the end, as Rome’s truncated format keeps the series moving at a breakneck pace, particularly in its second season, which is clearly the condensed version of a much larger story.
Rome is a show that always knew precisely what it wanted to be, and never wavered from it. Ambitious to a fault, it is a drama that swung for the fences and hit its mark, a lot of the time, even if it did supposedly spend a hundred million dollars an episode to do so. Which is why it’s so strange that, to this day, the series has never spawned more copycats. Where are the period dramas set in Cleopatra’s Egypt or that followed the long reign of Augustus, or that retold other familiar stories set in ancient times? Perhaps, had this series landed just five years later, shows like that might have followed. And what a glorious reign that might have been.
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Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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