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"Rome: The Complete Series" {Blu-ray}
Wayne Klein
Studio: HBO
Release Date:
Special Features:

13 Commentary tracks, "Friends, Romans and Countrymen", various production featurettes, "All Roads Lead to Rome" trivia/timeline, special features on various c


The best historical drama produced about the Roman Empire since “I, Claudius” and much more action driven “Rome” positively bristles with energy, a brilliant production design and stunning direction to compliment the strong scripts. “Rome” has every bit the look of a theatrical film with all the epic grandeur one could hope for. The first episode directed by Michael Apted and written by Bruno Heller (“Touching Evil”) provides viewers with a context for the series. Set in 52 A.D. “Rome” chronicles the fall of Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) and the rise of Gaius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) but told from the point of view of two “ordinary soldiers” Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd from “Kingdom of Heaven”) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson “King Arthur” and the TV show “Waking the Dead”). Their lives are entwined with Caesar and the change of Rome from a Republic to an Empire that is ultimately ruled over by Octavian. As we first meet Caesar he has conquered the Gauls but at his victory Gaius receives devastating news; his daughter and Pompey’s wife died during childbirth while he conquers the north. Many in the Roman Senate are concerned that Caesar’s great victories will allow him to wrest control from Pompey. The nobles in the Senate convince Pompey to betray his friend Caesar and undermine his reputation before his return to prevent him from possibly taking control of the Republic. ***

In the second season of "Rome" we continue to follow the adventures of ex- soldiers Lucius Vorenus and his good friend Titus Polo (both of whom, by the way, are real historical figures) who save Julius Ceasar, his nephew Octavian and assist Marc Antony in ways that indebt these larger than life historical figures to both men. Vorenus saved Polo during the first season. Vorenus who is respected by Julius Ceasar encourages him to run for the Senate helping him win a position there. With his new position comes new respect and challenges that the soldier in Vorenus finds difficult to deal with. At the conclusion of season one the death of Vorenus' wife and assassination of Julius Ceasasr combine to shatter Vorenus. This time it is Polo's job to save his friend from his descent into his own personal Hell. Ultimately both men end up fighting in the war between Octavian and Marc Antony for the Roman Empire but on opposite sides. The second season of "Rome" opens with Vorenius taking on the dark role of the leader of a gang with Polo as his second and charged by Octavian and Antony with keeping the peace between the waring gangs that prey on Roman citizens. ***

In the second season all roads may lead to Rome but those that travel them often meet with disaster along the way. "Rome" produced in conjunction with the BBC by HBO continues to set high marks for historical drama. Unlike the classic drama "I, Claudius", "Rome" isn't static focusing on studio bound sequences. Instead, this production takes us into battle using elaborate visual effects to show us the many conflicts that ultimately lead to Octavian becoming "First Citizen" of the Roman Empire and, in effect, an autocrat who ruled the Roman Empire with an iron fist. Below in the second paragraph is a synposis of season one that touches on the opening of season two. ---

Image & Sound:

As usual HBO provides an exceptional transfer with bright vivid colors and deep, rich blacks. The Blu-ray looks exceptional using the same high def masters used to prepare the original DVD incarnation of the show. We get a fair amount of grain keeping most of the film-like quality of the series although I should note that DNR was used during the series but it isn't as heavy handed as older high def masters and the show looks solid all around. I didn’t detect any major digital flaws. ***

The 5.1 audio mix is marvelous filled with detail and flawless sounding. The surround channels are used most effectively during the battle sequences during the show but there are subtle use of ambient sounds as well putting us in the "world" of "Rome". ---

Special Features:

We get eight commentary tracks with producer/writer and creator Bruno Heller along with a mix of other production crew/consultants. Four also feature historical consultant Jonathan Stamp who also provides a historical text commentary that crops up from time to time with fascinating tidbits. If you think divorce is a problem in our culture wait until you find out how often the Roman’s divorced. Both provide quite a bit of history and production trivia about shooting the series although there are long stretches of silence the participants more than make up for these with their lively discussion when they do talk. ***

We get five featurettes that are scattered throughout the set with the bulk of the special features on the sixth disc. First up is “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” which gives those unfamiliar with Roman history the background on the main characters and all the shenanigans they were up to without spoiling the plot. As usual these featurettes are intelligent and engaging providing both fascinating background on the time the series is set as well as intricate detail on the production of the show. ***

The second season discs feature five audio commentaries with two by creator/writer/producer Bruno Heller and producer/historical consultant Jonathan Stamp. One commentary track features actor James Purefoy who plays Antony while Lindsay Duncan who plays Octavia appears along with director John Maybury. Director Carl Franklin ("One False Move", "Devil in a Blue Dress") also appears on a commentary for the episode he directs along with the writer of that episode John Melfi. ***

I should have noted this earlier but there is an interactive timeline and trivia track "All Roads Lead to Rome" that provide us with the historical context for the series noting for example what various ceremonies meant to the Roman people. This was carried over from the original DVD sets and isn't new to this set but the interactive use of this special feature here is more effective and less cumbersome tahn the original DVD version. ***

We get four terrific featurettes that include clips from the series illustrating historical points and plenty of talking heads from the cast to the writer/producers/historical consultants putting the show into a historical perspective. ***

"The Rise of Octavian" focuses on how Augustus Octavian (a title that he would bestow on himself later) rose from the unlikely role of Julius Ceasar's heir and adopted son to lead the Roman Empire with little military experience. Octavian wisely surrounded himself with some of the best military tactians of the day including Agrippa out manuveured Antony in the decisive battle between Rome and Egypt. What made Octavian unique, however, was his ability to figure out the weakness of his enemy and exploit it as well as his ability to be ahead of his enemies politically. ***

"The Making of Rome: Season Two" gives us a tour of the massive sets which recently burned in the fire at the Italian studio where the series was shot. We also get insight into the costume design and visual effects used to create an epic on a TV budget. ***

"Antony & Cleopatra" explores their relationship and the dynamic that both fueled their love and their failure to conquer the Roman Empire. Jonathan Stamp and other historians discuss the importance of Antony to the Roman Empire's success as a military leader but also point out how "going native" became his undoing allowing Octavian to exploit this fact to undermine his support with the Roman people. ***

Final Words:

“Rome” reminds me of “I Claudius” on steroids. it's a pity that HBO was short sighted and elected NOT to continue this show on for a third or fourth season which is one of the reasons why we have a condensed timeline for the action of the series as the producers wanted to wrap things up the result though is a series that has massive gaps in the narrative. It's distracting but doesn't detract from the qualtiy of this series. The action is fast paced, gritty throughout giving us a very real sense of the soap opera at the heart of Roman political lives. ***

We may not always like the characters (much like “Deadwood”) but we understand much of their mixed motivations. Beautifully packaged “Rome” looks stunning in this top notch presentation from HBO. Definitely worth picking up, “Rome” is for folks looking for something more involving than “Full House” but not looking for the dry documentaries that are frequently screened on The History Channel.


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