Rome: Season 1

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Most approach the problems OF historical drama by emphasizing that, no matter how bizarre the costumes or the language, people don’t change — the same basic emotions have always guided us. This HBO/BBC series acknowledges a different truth; the past is another country, and they do things differently there.

Rome lays bare the oft-overlooked fact that the ancient Roman Republic was a civilisation only in comparison to the Dark Ages. Even the most upstanding figure here engages in animal sacrifice, torture, public shagging and crucifixion.

Our heroes are the honourable Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and the loutish Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two lowly soldiers who become entangled in Caesar’s rise and the fall of the Republic, while each has their own compelling story — Pullo’s puppyish love of a slave girl, and Lucius’ hesitant attempt to build a marriage with a wife he’s not seen in years.

The historical figures are superbly drawn — Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) as a ruthless politician of Machiavellian skill and towering ego, Marc Antony (James Purefoy) an opportunist playboy, and Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) a blunderer whose best days are behind him.

Another break from tradition is the strong showing by the women and children, in particular teen prodigy and future Emperor Octavian (Max Pirkis), and scheming rivals Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) and Atia (Polly Walker) — not standing demurely on the sidelines, but wading into the blood, sex and stomach-churning Roman medicine.

This is the longer HBO cut of the series, with more detail and context. The extra scene-setting is a useful reminder without slowing the pace much — an improvement on the broadcast version. Not as good-looking as Gladiator, perhaps, but richer in (reasonably accurate) history and texture.