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Saturday, February 10, 2007

All Roads Lead To...oh, never mind

So I recently watched a few episodes of "Rome," a truly awesome (if totally melodramatic) show on HBO about the last years of Julius caesar's reign. Like "Deadwood," it presents a very specific and historically significant time period as the backdrop for the soap opera plotlines. Anyone who took ancient history in school will immediately be able to identify the potential for a soap opera in ancient Rome: murder, incest, extortion, rape and plotting, oh the plotting!

For those who forgot the basics, here's a quick review. After assuming control of the government in 49 BC, Julius Caesar reformed Roman society and government, proclaimed himself dictator for life, and he heavily centralized the bureaucracy of the Republic, thus pissing off all the wrong people and forcing Marcus Junius Brutus to conspire with others to murder the dictator and restore the Republic. After Caesar's death, there was a huge power vacuum as many people struggled to take over the remains of the crumbling republic. Antony allied with Gaius Julius Caesar Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to form an official triumvirate (aka, the second triumvirate). It broke up in 33 BC and the disagreement turned to civil war. On one side was Antony, of Shakespearean fame, and his buddy Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a patrician with a really bad attitude. On the other side was Octavian (later known as Augustus), Caesar's adopted son/nephew. Octavian married Livia, mother of Tiberius and Drusus, who was a controlling, power-hungry diva. In soap opera lingo, she was pretty much the Alexis Colby of her day. In approximantely 30 BC, Antony was defeated by Octavian at Alexandria, and Octavian was officially declared the first Emperor of Rome. Octavian ruled for 41 years or so, with Livia wielding a whole lot of power.

Halfway between a History Channel miniseries and Peyton Place dwells "Rome." What makes the show so fun to watch is not the overarching plot--the writers cannot rewrite history, so there can be few surprises in that respect. The joys of Rome come in the personal storylines of two Roman soldiers: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, two soldiers mentioned in Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. The first season explored Julius Caesar's rise to power, the second season, so far, is exploring the struggle for power between Mark Anthony and Octavian. With a first season budget of 100 million dollars, "Rome" has the look and feel of a feature film. The sets are unbelievable, the costumes authentic and the cinematography unlike anything else on the network (except, of course, for "Carnivale," which still reigns supreme as the most beautifully photographed HBO show). The anachronistic dialogue (studded in an odd but compelling way by contemporary swear words) is delivered with flair and gravitas by a stellar cast. I haven't seen all the episodes yet, but I'm working my way through. I like the fact that the show respects the intelligence of the audience and I like the fact that people can actually learn a little something from the show while being entertained. Take a look at the first few episodes of the series and see if you don't agree.


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