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1320 to Rome

Ancient Rome fascinates. Both Republic and Empire. But no Roman period seems to hold most folks’ interest like the 20 or so years when one collapsed into civil war and the other rose to far greater power.

The root causes and degree of change were complex and broad. Key threads stretch back through Catalina’s attempt to overthrow the Republic during Cicero’s consulship, then further back, to another ‘New Man’, Marius, and his frienemy, the very patrician Sulla. Scholars spend their lives trying to unravel and understand what went on and why.

The Roman Forum in HDR

For most others, the names Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian may come to mind, together with the notion that they were somehow important. And anyway, history is boring and hard and useless (read the words in italics with a high, thin teenage whine). Back when I studied the Roman’s language, there was a very old piece of doggerel that every struggling Latin student soon learned:

Latin is a dead language,

It’s plain enough to see.

It killed off all the Romans,

And now it’s killing me.

So, the question becomes how to avoid the boring parts and get to the fascinating stuff without spending forever.

Good news! HBO has saved Roman history. At least this part. Their two-season masterpiece of a series, Rome, smashes through all the boring stuff. Better than any other visual effort I’ve ever seen, it brings daily life and the sweep of history together in a gripping way that leaves the viewer wanting more. It’s not a soap opera with swords like the truly lame The Tudors or Spartacus.

So, what makes Rome so much better? In 1320 minutes, it tells a great, epic story with even better characters, superb writing and acting, perfect set and costume design, and fantastic archaeo-geek special features for those who want them. What more can there be to TV than this? Oh, and you learn stuff without even noticing it happened.

Rome follows the charmed and cursed path of two soldiers over 20 years. Fascinating twists and turns carry them through the heart of the world’s greatest events, from Caesar’s conquest of Gaul to the reign of Caesar Augustus. Most importantly, you quickly comes to care about almost every character who utters a line. Ask yourself when that’s been true for you about any other offering on TV, regardless of genre. If you have even a passing interest in the period, I urge you to watch the first episode. See if you don’t become a fan as well.

As a disclaimer, I’ve got to say Rome is for a niche market. In an America where 75% of High School seniors don’t know that George Washington was the first President and to whom the Gulf War is itself ancient history, there may not be many left who even understand the question, let alone care about an answer.

On the other hand, HBO accurately tosses in lots of sex and violence, so it might be the only history lesson that could even register with that demographic. Jersey Shore über alles! (a reference even more ancient than the Gulf War).

Now that I think about it, there’s a sad irony that the central event of Rome is the fall of a republic.

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