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Rome: The Complete Series

HBO // Unrated // November 17, 2009
List Price: $139.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted November 30, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Ancient Rome is a subject of near endless fascination for many of us who count it as part of our cultural heritage. Most of us read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in school and have seen countless movies and teleplays such as Spartacus, Ben Hur, Gladiator, Quo Vidas, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, and I, Claudius. Yet none of these popular fictions come as close to accurately depicting the reality of daily life for ancient Romans, both patricians and plebs, as the impressive television series Rome (2005-2007).

Rome which was filmed in Italy, was a joint venture between HBO and BBC Two. The series was originally scripted for five seasons. Season one, spanning from the end of the Gallic Wars in 51 BC to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, was filmed as planned. However, midway through shooting season two, the fourteen-year period of sporadic civil war that marked the rise of Octavian to imperial power was hastily condensed from three seasons to one, and the originally planned end-cap, the rise of a Jewish messiah, was abandoned altogether. Though Rome earned critical acclaim and respectable numbers of viewers, the series was deemed too costly to continue.

Rome is perhaps unique for the degree to which it not only provided an immersive perspective from the vantage of prominent historical figures and patricians, but also from that of commoners. Rome competently provides the traditional top-down perspective of events through portrayals of well-documented historical figures such as Julius Caesar (CiarĂ¡n Hinds), Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies), Cicero (David Bamber), and Gaius Octavian (Max Pirkis/Simon Woods), together with dramatic amalgam patrician female characters, most notably Atia (Polly Walker) and Octavia of the Julii (Kerry Condon), and Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan). But, had the series limited itself to this top-down perspective, it might have only made for a pale comparison to the exceptional British miniseries, I, Claudius. Fortunately, Rome offers far more. In an interesting departure from convention, Rome also offers a well-rounded, bottom-up perspective through the vantage of two plebeian legionaries and their extended circle of family and connections: Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd).

Beyond merely providing narrative arcs for its plebeian characters, there's a degree of vitality and authenticity to the series that far exceeds anything found elsewhere. The city streets bustle with activity which seems far richer than that mustered in the ordinary background shots found elsewhere. Not limited to sets and extras, this sense of authenticity seems to permeate the social and religious customs both when they're highlighted (as when a bull is slaughtered as a pagan offering) and when they go nearly unnoticed (a small portion of food simply set aside as an offering, for example).

The driving historical narrative arcs of conflict between the populist Julius Caesar and the conservative Republicans in season one, and among the Republicans, Marc Antony, and Octavian in season two are more or less historically accurate despite liberal dramatic license (especially with regard to omission and compression), but this is but a third of the whole provided by Rome. A second principal narrative arc concerns a bitter rivalry between Atia of the Julii, mother of Octavian and lover of Marc Antony, and Servilia of the Junii, scorned lover of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus which is no less engaging, while the final principal narrative arc concerning the plebs Pullo and Vorenus often outshines the other two.

If one can accept the conceit that the plebs Pullo and Vorenus have an uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time to redirect the course of history, then the few minor flaws Rome has all seem to revolve around time. Some are narrative shortcuts: for instance, when villains come to abduct the children of Voreanus in broad daylight, the courtyard and adjacent street are suddenly empty of witnesses, though in every previous episode they had been a hive of activity filled with slaves, freemen and plebs. But most involve compressions of historical events in ways which leave loose ends unresolved, are anti-climatic, or are simply confusing. Most of these compressions occur in the second season and are attributable to suddenly having to wrap up the series rapidly. Examples include a storyline involving Jewish patriots which is meticulously developed but then hastily aborted, the lengthy introduction and undeveloped end of Marcus Lepidus (the third man in the Triumvirate with Marc Antony and Octavian), and the seemingly instantaneous and anti-climatic defeat of Marc Antony's forces at the hands of Octavian's after a lengthy buildup. A final time-related quibble: though twenty years elapse from start to finish, aside from the replacement of a few child actors, nobody appears to age much.

Video & Video:
The original 1.78:1 aspect ratio is preserved on this release spread over ten dual-layered, 50GB Blu-ray discs. Presented in full 1080p, this set is AVC MPEG-4 encoded. Having previously seen the first season of Rome on DVD, I can attest that the video quality is significantly improved. Colors are excellent, with reds and flesh tones looking especially vibrant and varied. Blacks are deep. Detail is extremely good, and grain is nicely preserved. The only flaws noticeable in the video are occasional artifacts and in a few of the darker scenes haloing, but these are rare.

The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is rich and immersive, with accurate directionality and greater range and intensity than the prior DVD release. Dub tracks are available in German: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French: DTS 2.0, Spanish: DTS 2.0, and Polish: DTS 2.0.

Optional subtitles are availabe in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Greek, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Turkish.

Rome: The Complete Series has a robust collection of extras which begins with the packaging: an outer case houses a tome featuring 14 thick cardboard pages (28 pages front and back) of production stills, disc-specific content descriptions, episode synopses, and sheathing for the ten discs. Though the packaging looks impressive, some collectors will be disappointed to find that the design requires sliding the discs in and out of their housing potentially causing minor abrasions to the discs.

All of the discs include an interactive feature providing brief character biographies which emphasize the connections between the characters, and every episode includes previews and an optional pop-up track of historical trivia, but note this material sometimes includes minor spoilers for viewers unfamiliar with the relevant details. For example, a pop-up might note that a particular location was the scene of a climactic battle while within the narrative the opposing generals have not yet decided when and where to fight.

Thirteen episode commentaries are also available: five of the commentaries feature series creator Bruno Heller and series historian Jonathan Stamp; one features executive producer John Melfi and director Carl Franklin; one features director John Maybury and actress Lindsay Duncan (Servilia), and solo commentaries are recorded by directors Steve Shill and Jeremy Podeswa, and actors Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo), Kevin McKidd (Lusious Vorenus), and James Purefoy (Marc Antony), respectively.

Three hours of featurettes are also spread across the ten discs. These include the series introduction Friends, Romans, Countrymen (SD, 11 min.); the behind-the-scenes production promo The Rise of Rome (SD, 24 min.); two scene-specific making-of featurettes Shot X Shot: "Ceasar's Triumph" (SD, 23 min.) and Shot X Shot: "Gladiator" (23 min.); When in Rome an engaging cultural examination of ancient Rome; a historical featurette about distinctions of social class in the ancient capital, A Tale of Two Romes (HD, 21 min.); The Making of Rome: Season II (HD, 23 min.); The Rise of Octavian: Rome's First Emperor (HD, 21 min.) a historical doc about the rise of Octavian to imperial power; and Antony and Cleopatra (HD, 15 min.), a final historical doc about Antony and Cleopatra's political and personal relationship.

Final Thoughts:
Rome: The Complete Series is an outstanding Blu-ray release: a remarkable historical television series, with a suitably impressive presentation, and ample extras. For any Blu-ray collector that enjoys serialized historical dramas, Rome: The Complete Series is a must buy.

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