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HBO presents
Rome: The Complete First Season (2005)

"We must win or die. Pompey's men have other options."
- Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 23, 2006

Stars: Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Polly Walker, James Purefoy, Ciarán Hinds
Other Stars: Kenneth Cranham, Lindsey Duncan, Tibais Menzies, Kerry Condon, Karl Johnson, Indira Varma, David Bamber, Max Pirkis, Lyndsey Marshall, Ian McNeice, Guy Henry
Director: Michael Apted, Julian Farino, Allen Coulter, Alan Poul, Tim Van Patten, Steve Shill, Jeremy Podeswa, Alan Taylor, Mikael Salomon

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, gore, nudity, sexuality, torture, language)
Run Time: 10h:19m:12s
Release Date: August 15, 2006
UPC: 026359284823
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

With the exception of the fondly-remembered miniseries I, Claudius many years ago, ancient Rome has for some reason not been given much attention on dramatic television. But that all changed in 2005 with the inception of Rome on HBO. Perhaps it required the laxer censorship of cable television to do justice to the lurid activities of the Romans. Certainly HBO takes full advantage of that ability in this series, overflowing with enough sex and violence to delight any Roman. In any event, the results are quite riveting and the production values are just as ambitious as Caesar himself.

The 12 episodes of somewhat less than an hour each cover a good deal of territory, from the culmination of the conquest of Gaul by Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) in the 52 BCE battle of Alesia, to his demise in the Senate in 44 BCE. Along the way, the series covers Caesar's disputes with Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), the ensuing civil war, Caesar's trip to Egypt and meeting Cleopatra, and his triumphant return to the city and the fall of the Republic with the willing complicity of the Senate and the people of Rome. But what makes this more than a parade of historic events is the action behind the scenes, driven by Caesar's great-niece Atia (Polly Walker), mother of Octavia (Kerry Condon) and Octavian (Max Pirkis) as she schemes in rivalry to Caesar's castoff lover Servilia (Lindsey Duncan), mother of Brutus (Tobias Menzies).

In parallel with the actions of the nobles, there are also some plebians to hold the interest of the viewer by giving them someone to relate to directly. These are in the persons of centurion Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and legionnaire Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). This pair of squabbling friends find themselves in the center of all these historic events, though much of the time they're focused on their own lives. Vorenus must come to terms with his estranged wife Niobe (Indira Varma), who thought he was dead after he had been gone to Gaul for eight years, while Pullo is concentrating on feeding his voracious appetites for food, drink and women. Complicating matters are a strong morality and loyalty to the Republic on the part of Vorenus, contrasting with the opportunistic behavior of Pullo. They have a great chemistry together, making us believe they're loyal friends even though they are very different and often at each others' throats.

The casting is nothing short of perfect. Hinds has the charismatic authority to pull of Caesar, and looks somewhat like the artistic renditions of the man to boot. He has a good deal of material to work with, thanks to scripting that makes him sound noble without being a declamatory stuffed shirt. Cranham's Pompey is a worthy adversary, conscious of his advancing age and infirmity, but remembering himself as the triumphant warrior. Walker has a slimy viciousness and amorality straight out of the Joan Collins playbook that's quite charming, and she seems truly taken aback when someone resents her machinations. Other standouts include Karl Johnson as Cato, determined not to let the Republic fall, and Condon's Octavia, both willful and ineffectual, reduced to self-mutilation in quiet protest. Max Pirkis starts off as a whiny teen Octavian, but he impressively conveys growth in the character as the series progresses. In a small part as an increasingly dissolute newreader, Ian MacNeice makes a big impression, paralleling the decay of the Republic.

The production is quite outstanding, shot in Rome at Cinecittá with Roman extras. The choices are intriguing; Alesia is given plenty of attention, while the climactic battle of the civil war, Pharsalus, is dispensed with in a few slow-motion closeups. But the battles aren't the focus here; really, it is the people and the drama behind the scenes. That's not to say that there isn't plenty of violence and gore, which are in abundant supply, especially in the 11th episode as Titus Pullo finds himself condemned to die in the arena (though a much smaller-scale arena than fans of Gladiator might expect). The attention to historic detail is almost excruciating, while the writers feel free to invent incidents to counterpoint the historical record. It's a clever device and the construction works quite well. Although initially intended to be a single-season miniseries, the show will be back for a second and final season, presumably taking on the second triumvirate and the ascent of Octavian. One wonders, however, how well the series can proceed without the powerful personality of Julius Caesar at its center. Even if it doesn't succeed in its second round, the first season is a fine gem.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture is very attractive, with tons of fine detail and vivid color. Shadow detail is reasonably good, though one wishes for an HD-DVD version to really bring this to life. The source material is in first-rate condition, as one would expect for a new series. There is very little to be unhappy about here, beyond the occasional bit of compression ringing.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 English mix is very active, with quite a lot of surround activity. Directionality is very pronounced at times, and dialogue is always clear. Hiss and noise are nonexistent. When there is deep bass, it comes across with aplomb and nice impact. The memorable theme music has a nice presence as well, giving an immediacy to the credits that makes them enjoyable to listen to every time.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 144 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
8 Feature/Episode commentaries by writer Bruno Heller, historic consultant Jonathan Stamp, Ray Stevenson, Kevin McKidd, directors Steve Shill and Jeremy Podeswa
Packaging: Boxed Set
Picture Disc
6 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Text commentary
  2. Previously and Next On bumpers
  3. Gallery
Extras Review: The package includes an excellent set of bonus materials as well. Foremost of these is an optional text commentary on every episode by historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, remarking on various bits of trivia that might otherwise pass unnoticed. There's a huge amount of fascinating detail here, and I heartily recommend it to fans of the program. There are also audio commentaries of varying impact on eight of the most important episodes. Stamp's remarks tend to duplicate the text commentaries. Ray Stevenson offers a lively talk about his participation in the series on episode five, while McKidd's commentary on episode 11 is sparse and uninformative to an almost painful degree.

Each episode also comes with the corresponding "Previously on" and "Next on" bumpers. An 11-minute featurette, Friends, Romans, Countrymen on Disc 1 gives a good introduction to the characters (an included booklet does the same). The Rise of Rome (23m:35s) is devoted to the production design, the sets, and the behind-the-scenes workings of re-creating ancient Rome. When in Rome (22m:40s) looks at the ways in which daily Roman life, as we understand it, is reflected in the series. Both are a notch above the standard EPK materials, but they're not essential. Finally, there's a gallery of nearly five dozen stills.

The packaging bears some comment. HBO has gone all out in making a deluxe presentation of this series, with a sturdy clamshell box holding a folding digipak. It's quite a substantial shelfpiece, well designed and attractive.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

An outstanding series, with impeccable casting and painstaking attention to historic detail, yet a highly human drama at its core. The transfer is quite beautiful, and the extras are quite fine as well. Very highly recommended.


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