It is obvious where Rome got its primary inspiration. In 1976, I, Claudius was quite the phenomenon, a well-written British drama series that chronicled key events in Rome from the days of the first Emperor, Augustus, to the death of Emperor Claudius. The characters were portrayed by reliable stage actors and the setting was as sparse as possible. When Bruno Heller, the head writer of Rome, and his colleagues decided to make a modern equivalent, the backing of American, British and Italian financiers made it possible to spend a lot of money on not just actors and writers but also the actual depiction of what Rome must have looked like in those days. Add to that juicy sex scenes and bloody violence; success was guaranteed.
A Roman civil war
Sometimes it feels like any period in the history of Rome was equally dramatic. The one the creators of this series chose takes place between 49 BC and 31 BC. The first season depicts a Roman civil war where Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), a successful general, becomes a rival to a highly esteemed colleague, Pompey (Kenneth Cranham). The men have very different views of how Rome should be governed; Pompey, aided by the influential senator Cicero (David Bamber), wants to preserve the power of the Senate and keep the Republic as it is. Caesar on the other hand wants to reform it and after a civil war that ends in Pompey’s death, Caesar is able to declare himself dictator for life. We all know the history – the first season ends in Caesar’s death, the dictator stabbed by a group of senators led by Brutus (Tobias Menzies), a former ally.
The second one continues immediately after the first, with another former Caesar ally, Mark Antony (James Purefoy), rising to the task of leading Rome. He’s soon challenged by Octavian (played as a teenager by Max Pirkis, as a young man by Simon Woods), the true heir to Caesar. The rivalry between the two men soon drives Antony into the arms of Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal).
Our link to everyday life
These are all famous real-life persons, but the main characters of Rome were two retired Roman soldiers, Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) and Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd). They always managed to stay close to the leaders of Rome, but they were our link to everyday life in the city. We saw how common people lived, how they prepared meals, what their customs, attitudes and sexual mores were like. These were all ingredients completely ignored in I, Claudius. Still, the most thrilling parts of Rome were the political intrigues. In the second season, Purefoy made the most of his Mark Antony, a delight to watch as a foolish, corrupt, wicked, stupid and arrogant man who eventually embarked on a self-destructive (and dramatically fascinating) relationship with Cleopatra.
The character of Atia (Polly Walker) was obviously inspired by the scheming, vicious Livia in I, Claudius and the writers turned Octavian (the future Augustus) into a complex man, sexually deviant and cold, but always concerned with justice and the well-being of the people.
For better or worse, Rome influenced subsequent historical dramas like The Tudors. Accuracy may not have been the primary concern, but it was well-made and offered more than just attention-grabbing sex and murder.
Rome 2005-2007:U.S.-Britain-Italy. Made for TV. 22 episodes. Color. Created by Bruno Heller, William J. MacDonald, John Milius. Theme: Jeff Beal. Cast: Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo), Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus), Polly Walker (Atia), James Purefoy, Ciarán Hinds (05), Simon Woods (07), Lindsay Duncan, Kerry Condon, Tobias Menzies, Indira Varma (05), David Bamber, Max Pirkis, Esther Hall, Coral Amiga, Kenneth Cranham (05), Lyndsey Marshal (07), Karl Johnson (05).
Last word: “On the one hand the historical facts are extremely useful as the backbone of the show, but on the other hand it means you can’t just fly off into fantastic story lines. Once we see what the shape of the history is for a particular episode – the arc of the show – then it’s a question of finding fictional narratives that intertwine, in both a technical and emotional way, with the larger historical story. We try to think of the smaller personal stories as the A stories and the big epic story as the B story, which, generally, you would do the other way around. From the very start I felt with this that the sort of rank-and-file people’s stories would be much more relatable than say Cleopatra or Caesar’s. Their lives have very little immediate connection to our lives compared to the way an ordinary soldier’s life does.” (Heller, Writers Guild of America)