Rome (2005)
HBO Home Video
Cast: Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Text Commentary, Featurettes, Photo Gallery

The concept is as simple as it is genial. Turn history into a TV series with fully-fleshed out characters, allowing people to see what happened at another point in time. HBO Home Entertainment did just that with their TV show "Rome, " which is now coming to DVD as a wonderful 6-disc DVD set. The concept itself is not really novel – "I, Claudius" comes to mind for example – but this time, we don't get a small limited production that feels almost like a thespian play. This time the filmmakers go all the way, creating a show that has incredible production values, accessibility and an epic scope.

This first season of "Rome" focuses on the time when Gaius Julius Cesar (Ciarán Hinds) defeated Gaul – in fact, the show's first minutes contain Vercingetorix's submission to Caesar in 52 BC – while Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) reigns Rome in Caesar's stead. Everyone is concerned that given his popularity, money and power, Caesar tries to undo the Republic and make himself King of Rome. The Senate, of course, is vehemently opposed to this thought and Caesar's notion to distribute power and wealth more evenly among all citizens as opposed to a rich uppercrust of noblemen, and tries everything within their power to make sure Caesar never gets his way.

Through an arbitrary act they declare Julius Caesar an enemy of Rome and strip him of all his powers. But Caesar wouldn't be one of history's greatest conquerors if he were to let a few old men dictate his doings. And so he decides to take his infamous 13th legion and march onto Rome for a head-on confrontation. It is a move no one expected and the Roman noblemen and senators that rally themselves around Pompey suddenly find that Rome has no protection at all for such a face off. They flee the city and leave it to Caesar, who makes it clear to everyone that he is not interested in bloodshed but political order.

Over the course of months he tries to settle the dispute with the exiled senators but intrigue, treason and murder make that an almost impossible proposition. The rest, as they say, is history… and exciting history at that!

"Rome" shows us these historic events in a truly spectacular fashion, covering these final years in Caesar's reign over the course of its entire first season, ending with one of history's most climactic and treacherous moments, of course – the Ides of March. The two main characters are Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two legionnaires in Caesar's 13th Legion. It is through them that we see most of the events unfold, as they find themselves in the middle of it. They are often tasked with duties that are of great relevance to Caesar and as a result of great historic importance also, such as their retrieving his stolen standard, recovering Cleopatra, finding Pompey's gold, discovering Pompey on his way to Egypt and so forth. Both characters are incredibly well fleshed out and have an emotional depth as they deal with their lives – and the lives of others. We learn about their dreams and aspirations, their hopes, their losses, their weaknesses and devastating lows as well as their glorious moments of victory and success. McKidd and Stevenson, pull these characters off with charm and credibility, making it easy for viewers to like them and follow their "adventures," so to speak.

Gaius Julius Caesar is portrayed by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, and the filmmakers could not have found a better fit for the part. Hinds is simply perfect and after watching two episodes of "Rome" you will not be able to think of Caesar as anything but Hinds, that is how well he captures the character and makes the role his own. Pleasant, yet determined, friendly, yet a lethal opponent and formidable foe, a lover, a friend, a thinker and most of all an incredible conqueror who inspired his legions over and over again, Caesar was a force of nature and Hinds portrays every little nuance of the man, the legend and the prodigy that he was.

Overall the cast selection "Rome" is incredible. Staying away from overly familiar faces to ensure credibility, the series has a large number of regular characters and each of them is played to the hilt. Whether it is the scheming Atia, brought wickedly to life by Polly Walker, her son Octavian, played by a young Max Pirkis, Servilia, Caesar's former lover seeking revenge, played by Lindsay Duncan, or the members of the senate, and Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), each character has depth and human qualities that shine through wonderfully.

All of this is what makes a film based on history so valuable, because the players, who used to be mere names in dry books, are suddenly springing to life, making an impression on you, talking about their beliefs and as such making their actions so much more tangible and comprehensible. Even if some things may not be entirely historically accurate, these characters undoubtedly tell audiences more about the times they lived in and the events they were involved in than "Bellum Gallicum" ever can. (No disrespect or discredit to Caesar meant. I am, in fact, one of the people who read "Bellum Gallicum" in its original Latin version.)

The biggest gripe most viewers always have with historic movies and TV shows is their accuracy. To make it clear, I do not share this sentiment, necessarily, as I understand that filmmakers have to make changes and adaptions to the material to keep it interesting, exciting. After all, they are making movies. As such, the filmmakers of "Rome" also took some liberties. The characters of Vorenus and Pullo, for example, come to mind who are transported from Caesar's 11th Legion to the 13th in the show, among other things. Most of these things are minor however and definitely serve to make the show more compelling and to create stronger characters. I am not sure how much of an exciting character the real-life Pullo would have made, to be honest. At the same time it never goes too far, romanticizing events or embellishing them too much. Cleopatra, is the perfect exmaple. Where every other movie made her a radiant beauty, a kind of an über-woman, "Rome" remains more faithful to reality, portraying her as a fairly short-grown woman with drug-addiction problems, a bad haircut and average-looking at best. Cleopatra became notorious for her political scheming and that is what the filmmakers focused on, instead of superficial appearances.

This sense to strive for authenticity is evident throughout the production design and writing. Rome is not the glorious city you may expect. It is a dump with serious hygienic problems, overpopulated, full of thieves and murders, just as it was in real-life. The film brings to bear the vulgarity of the culture as well its decadence, underscoring the moral standards that were quite different from today's. The result is a harsh film that borders on R-rated material, full of violence and blood, as well as profane sexual content and nudity.

HBO Video is presenting "Rome" in its original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio in a transfer that is enhanced for 16×9 TV sets. The image quality is pristine, rendering a picture that is wonderfully rich and sharp and entirely free of defects or blemishes. Color reproduction is meticulous, with strong hues and natural-looking palettes. Deep black levels give the image visual depth and render deep shadows that give the streets of Rome a foreboding look, but also enhance the cozy haven of people's homes. Not a hint of edge-enhancement is evident in the transfer and the picture is always free of compression artifacts entirely. In short, "Rome" looks more like a full-fledged movie than a TV show.

The audio is presented as a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital track that is equally impressive. With its wide frequency response and good bass extension, the track sounds very natural and is very active throughout. Surrounds come into play especially during battle scenes, skirmishes and other melee encounters, as well as during some of the crowd scenes where surround channels are used heavily for ambient effects. Dialogue is well integrated and always clear and understandable, standing out over the sound effects and the music. The great score that accompanies the show is also nicely represented with a mix that has clarity and restores fine nuances of the instrumentation very well.

As extras this box set also offers up a handful, starting with a printed foldout introducing us to the main characters of the show. It is nicely complemented by "Friends, Romans, Countrymen", an introduction to the main characters in video form.

A text commentary is also available on all episodes, called "All Roads Lead To Rome" in which the filmmakers detail more of the historic events and facts that make up the episodes. These text comments are highly valuable and informative, but at the same time appear a bit sparse.

Selected episodes also contain commentary tracks by cast and crew members as they discuss the production of the show, the characters and the events depicted. Two "Shot by shot" featurettes are also included, covering two sequences from the show in more detail and showing how they were produced.

On the sixth disc of the set you will find another number of bonus materials, such as "When In Rome," a featurette on the culture in ancient Rome. Running over 20 minutes, it gives viewers a better understanding for the differences of the culture compared to today's societies. I found it very valuable, especially for those who may not be familiar with some of the extremes of the Roman culture at the time.

"The Rise Of Rome" is a 25-minute featurette discussing many aspects of the production and how the filmmakers approached the subject, trying to make it authentic and credible to the best of their abilities.

The disc is rounded out by an extensive photo gallery

"Rome" is a remarkable release in all aspects. From its heavy custom-manufactured box, the rich foldouts and inserts to the show's own production values, this is very easily one of the best shows television has ever brought forth. Every episode stands out and leaves you wanting more. I found myself in the middle of the night, wondering where the time went while literally eating up one episode after another, that's how good it is. I can only hope the show will continue with more seasons. If memory serves right, Augustus' reign would be next in the timeline, who is of course, young Octavian in the first season, and ascends to be the first Emperor of Rome after Caesar's death. Just imagine the possibilities the filmmakers have at their hands here, Augustus, Caligula, Claudius, Nero… all Emperors who could get their dues in their own seasons in this sort of in-depth exploration of Roman history. It's never been done before and I doubt we will see anything like it again any time soon.

HBO once again proves that they take television seriously and this DVD set of "Rome" is a release that every single DVD owner should have in their collection. It is, hands down, among the best TV productions I have ever seen, beating just about every blockbuster movie release of last year to the punch!