The Daily Stream: HBO's Rome Never Should Have Ended

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Series: "Rome"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Ah, what could and should have been. Back in 2005, which is exactly 1000 years ago in the post-pandemic reckoning, HBO pretty much began the era of very expensive, prestige television with the TV series "Rome." This was before streaming and the rise (and fall) of many services with a whole lot of money to burn. "Rome" was incredibly expensive, but it was so good that fans clamored for more. There were supposed to be five seasons, though we only got the first wonderful one and a second, very rushed (but still good) season. Think of it this way; "Rome" had to walk (and get canceled early) so that "House of the Dragon" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power" could run.

The series revolves around the big figures of Roman history, namely Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), his brutal assassination by his friend Marcus Junius Brutus (Tobias Menzies), the manipulations of his niece Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker) and his lover/Brutus' mother Servilia (Lindsay Duncan). Our way in, however, is through two soldiers named Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), who were named in the real Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico.

While soldiers weren't exactly the everyday Roman, having gone through battles and seen some of the workings of the government, they weren't the rich and famous (or infamous, as the case may be). They're the audience's eyes and ears, and oh my, what they see and hear!

Why it's essential viewing

Outside of the magical performances, which I'll get to in a second, the show has some incredible historical accuracy in terms of the music and the elaborate sets, costumes, and bits of culture. It's probably what led to the crazy budget, but it's worth every penny. I rewatched this after a trip to Rome, and I was blown away once again. More so because of what I'd learned. Creators John Milius, William J. MacDonald, and Bruno Heller have stated a number of times that they were going for authenticity rather than accuracy. It's a good move for a show based on ancient history. We can never really know exactly how things were. 

This might seem like a small thing, but even in something as seemingly trivial as clothing, we can't know exactly what they looked like or felt like because, for instance, some of the fibers from plants used in clothing from the past are extinct. What we can do is imagine what people would have felt and loved and hated and how each person fit into the Roman Empire. We can also remember that while the day-to-day would have been different, emotions are still the same, and the performances reflect that in the most spectacular way. 

Beware the Ides of March

I'm sure you'll hear or read about how the second season was rushed and overstuffed, and that's not wrong. It 100 percent is, with items from the planned third and fourth seasons being shoved in there. That said, it covers Mark Anthony (James Purefoy) and his meeting and relationship with Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal in a bit of very unexpected and perfect casting), the Battle of Actium, and their demise. There's a lot in there, but every moment is worth watching. I would recommend not binging season 2 in one day. Give each episode time to fill your brain with each moment it offers. 

I want to point out some of the incredible performances here, including one of my all-time favorite actresses, Polly Walker, who plays Atia of the Julii. The abandon with which she plays the role is utterly compelling. Add in Lindsay Duncan as Servilia of the Junii, whose big revenge scene (oh, you'll know it when you see it) is mind-blowing. I would watch a three-hour film of these two women just talking and never be bored for a second. I don't need to tell you how amazing Ciarán Hinds is, and Tobias Menzies gives Brutus every facet he can fit in there. I highly suggest purchasing some strong coffee because I know you're going to be up the entire night with the first season. Maybe just call in sick?

The political machinations of the Roman senate show how much our current-day politics have in common with this incredibly powerful and troubled empire. What's really interesting to think about is how much our turbulent times are reflected in a show from almost 20 years ago. Maybe it's even more relevant now.