“Rome” is profligate with its curses: Mark Antony swears of Brutus and his co-conspirators, “I’m going to eat their livers!” Octavia says of Servilia, her former lover, “I’ll see her eaten by dogs.” And Servilia execrates fickle Caesar with chilling precision: “Let his penis wither, let his bones crack, let him see his legions drown in their own blood.”
HBO has become hostage to its own success. We now expect its dramas not only to make us feel—a trick that any scriptwriter can perform by giving a tot a limp or a dog—but, rarest of joys, to make us think. The corpse-eating pigs and baroquely obscene insults on “Deadwood,” for instance, served an argument that democracy in America emerged as the by-product of ruthless men’s determination to preserve their wealth—in other words, as a cost of doing business.
With “Rome,” a co-production with the BBC which returns this Sunday for its second (and final) season, HBO seemed, at first, to wrestle with its own reputation. The show labored to shatter our preconceptions about the slow-motion civil wars that followed Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon; evidently figuring that the oratory of the Julii had been dramatized by everyone from Shakespeare to Guccione, the series’ creators opted for a grimy, Hogarthian look at everyday Italian life—“Deadwood” in tunics. Of course, you can’t prune every scenic cliché from a sword-and-sandal epic, and “Rome” had its enjoyable share of sly eunuchs, assassins’ faces webbed with blood, legionaries in their clanking baldrics and cuirasses, and lounging nobles nibbling, in turn, on a fig and a sibling. Somehow, though, the show spent more than a hundred million dollars and neglected to film the sine qua non of the genre: a monstrous battle that leaves us aghast at the waste of life and money. And Rome itself appeared to be inhabited by about thirty-eight people and four ubiquitous chickens. Granted, Cecil B. De Mille went too far the other way—but why make history’s mightiest imperium look like a farm in the Ozarks? At the same time, the series’ visual style was less revisionist than revisiting—a refrigerator soup of Hollywood’s past Lucullan feasts. A bout in the arena, featuring a chain-saw massacre’s worth of spurting limbs, was straight out of “Gladiator,” and the show’s trademark panning shot, a glide past a moaning naked couple to a slave woodenly manning a fan, was pure “Caligula.”
Yet by midseason the soft-core sex had largely fallen away, and the show found its subject: power. Not the most original take on Rome, perhaps, but one that the writers realized with increasing subtlety. The portly town crier (Ian McNeice) embodied the culture’s ingratiating hypocrisy: in a staccato manner reminiscent of Fox News, he delivered bulletins celebrating the latest battle’s victors and lambasting last week’s heroes as traitors. Those who fell, fell hard. In the seventh episode, the defeated consul Pompey, dazed and suddenly bereft of his followers, scratched out troop movements in the dirt, trying to make Caesar’s rout of his forces at Pharsalus turn out otherwise. “That’s how the Republic died,” he murmured.
The second season opens with Caesar dead on the Senate floor, and we plunge into the silky, brutal jockeying for succession. First to stake his claim is Mark Antony (James Purefoy). Antony is an ill-tempered sot, but you have to admire his balls, if only because he waves them about so in repeated nude scenes. Seeking to bully Cicero (an exquisitely diffident David Bamber), the conscience of the Senate, into proposing that he govern Gaul, Antony sits his reluctant ally down. Then he approaches, menacingly parts his tunic—and urinates onto a nearby plant.
CICERO (shrinking away): The Senate would know I was backing you only through—through fear of death.
ANTONY: Oh . . . (mock dawning comprehension) Oh, I understand. You do not want to seem cowardly. Well, tell them I bribed you.
Cicero rises to the threat like a true Roman, denouncing Antony in the Senate: “You have brought upon us war, pestilence, and destruction. You are Rome’s Helen of Troy.” Prudently, however, he has a clerk read his remarks as he flees town in search of less barbaric allies.
Once “Rome” found its subject, the show’s remaining issue—a perennial one for costume dramas—was which verbs would best summon it to life. What idiom conveys the glory that was Rome to a modern audience? As Hollywood bows to Britain on all things foreign or classy, the default model is a toga-draped Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton intoning limpid iambs. “Rome” updates that model, but not always enough. One of the show’s wealthy idlers describes Macedonia as “filthy climate, vile food, beastly people,” and the general Agrippa, having just blurted out his love to Octavia, apologizes like a stammering Hugh Grant: “Horrid imposition on my part, of course. You barely know me. Ridiculous.” Meanwhile, commoners mutter Cockney slang such as “Bollocks to ’is, we’ll be away for a bevvy.” Perfect for the BBC, perhaps, but not for the American ear.
In “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s Maximus was a model of concision—“At my signal, unleash hell”—and his martial, mid-Atlantic argot played handsomely. “Rome,” in its new season, absorbs that lesson and showcases its brusquest and most soldierly characters: its highborn women. The show’s pitiless gorgons campaign ceaselessly to have their men crowned or killed, whichever. The notion that the Empire ran on pillow talk and poison—the Great Woman theory of history—was also at the heart of the BBC’s 1976 “I, Claudius,” but “Rome,” with its spitting catfights, is closer in spirit to “Dynasty.” Atia (Polly Walker) is Caesar’s niece and Antony’s lover and a real piece of work; when bidding adieu to the visiting Cleopatra, she embraces her rival for Antony’s brutish affections and murmurs, “Die screaming, you pig-spawned trollop.” Atia’s nemesis is Servilia (a magnificently steely Lindsay Duncan), mother of Brutus and former lover of Caesar and of Atia’s daughter Octavia. When Servilia is kidnapped by Atia, she bears up far better than Cicero would:
ATIA: “A slow and painful death.” That’s what you promised me.
SERVILIA: That’s what you deserve.
ATIA: You think you’re so fucking superior, don’t you?
SERVILIA: You have no idea what I think. . . . Why do you keep talking? Kill me.
The show’s actual soldiers, the short-tempered centurion Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and the companionable legionary Pullo (Ray Stevenson), are comparatively maidenly. Vorenus and Pullo are constantly getting into scrapes in which their country’s fortunes are at stake, and, like all literary warriors, they’re far happier in battle than home by the fire. Last season, the men had a sweetly clueless exchange about how to talk to women (“Pretend you’re putting a saddle on a skittish horse,” Pullo suggested), a discourse that concluded with tentative musings on the clitoris.
The new episodes find Vorenus devastated by his wife’s suicide. Believing himself accursed, he invites the gods’ full wrath by publicly smashing a statue of the goddess Concord: “I am a son of Hades! I fuck Concord in her ass!” Vorenus also curses his children, but Pullo tries to reassure him that, since he didn’t sacrifice an animal, “the curse isn’t sealed.” No fowl, no harm. Still, the children vanish. (In Hollywood, all maledictions take effect; faith, of any kind, must be rewarded.) “Rome” is profligate with its curses: Mark Antony swears of Brutus and his co-conspirators, “I’m going to eat their livers!” Octavia says of Servilia, her former lover, “I’ll see her eaten by dogs.” And Servilia execrates fickle Caesar with chilling precision: “Let his penis wither, let his bones crack, let him see his legions drown in their own blood.”
This season sees rapid shifts in Rome’s ruling authority—“Long live the Republic!” the town crier calls, hedging his bets—and a deepening of the show’s understanding of where power ultimately resides. In the world view of the Republic, curses were the court of last appeal; soon, Rome’s final word will belong to its Emperor. Power is not bestowed by the gods but seized by the ambitious. And it can even be used, we are rather brutally shown, to quell the unrest caused by other ambitious men—that is, for the public good. By challenging the liberal conviction that all power corrupts, the show, despite its flaws, has finally become a drama worthy of HBO’s name