Tellyscape with Marshall Julius 16/05/2012
A short-lived but unforgettable small screen epic co-created by The Mentalist’s Bruno Heller, Rome was a ground-breaking, authentic portrayal of the fall of a Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire. Seen through the eyes of both ordinary citizens and famous historical figures, it was a powerful yet intimate tale of love and betrayal, masters and slaves and husbands and wives.
Filmed at the legendary Cinecitta studios in Italy, the ambitious HBO/BBC collaboration achieved a peak viewing audience of 9 million across the Beeb when it started its run in 2005. Although the series only lasted for two short seasons, amounting to 22 episodes in total, it brought a fascinating and influential period of history back to life and remains among the most opulent telly productions of all time.
“Julius Caesar was a great general,” says celebrated character actor Ciarán Hinds of the legend he brought back to life in Rome. “He was an extraordinary and astute politician. When he actually came into power he had all these great engineering ideas for canals and roadways and draining marshes, practical stuff to progress the city. He was also into astronomy in a big way and was a great writer – he wrote huge tracts about the campaigns – and he was an amazing orator. You just think where did this guy come from, to be brilliant in so many different ways?
“Also he was a pragmatist, he had a lot of charm but used it politically; he knew when to use the velvet glove and when to use the iron stick. He was an extraordinary soldier, apart from being a brilliant general and tactitioner. He was an extraordinary warrior who led from the front. Sometimes if battles were going against him, suddenly he would head up the hill in front of everybody – literally dragging people after him, not pushing them up. He wouldn’t give in. A lot of the battles they fought were touch and go – he’s a very risky guy.
“When it came to playing Caesar, I had my good days and my bad days. Sometimes I felt up for it and other days I thought, ‘Holy God, what am I doing here?’ It was never less than a challenge, and physically very demanding. On the first season, we originally set out to do all the big stuff with the army in Gaul very early on in the shoot – we were supposed to be filming it in May – but that didn’t happen due to weather circumstances. We ended up shooting it in freezing January, all open-air by a lake and the wind came right through the valley, and that was quite a challenge because it was freezing and everybody was exhausted and cold. People just weren’t well. But in the end, we’re supposed to be Roman soldiers aren’t we? That’s supposed to be nothing to them.”
“Pullo is a man who will fight all day and all night, and then he will go and drink all day and all night, and then he will go and s**g all day and all night, and perhaps have a gamble on the side.” So speaks Thor star Ray Stevenson, of his rip-roaring role as Titus Pullo in Rome. “That to him would be a good weekend!”
“I always saw Pullo as a squaddie, basically. He’s a soldier through and through. He doesn’t fight for any higher political or religious ideals, he just fights for the soldiers next to him. When the armies are disbanded he’s as much out of water as any contemporary soldier would be. He’s a man of action, sees things very much in black and white. He sees that other people deal with the world in shades of grey but he can’t see the point. It gets him into all sorts of trouble.
“It’s all so authentic,” says Stevenson of the production. “Making the show could be incredibly gruelling. Just wearing the actual uniform, the chain mail and helmets, was tough. They weren’t fake. Beaten metal helmets, full weighted chain mail eating into your flesh, strappy sandals – when you’re standing there in Italy, in the heat, in those helmets it got so hot. Your brain was slowly cooking!
“We spent three days filming a fight in the arena for one episode. We had 11 stunt boys working and we worked so hard to make it believable, rich, thrilling, bloody and exciting. After three days all of us were so battered. These boys had done a lot of work beforehand, working out all the choreography. Giorgio, who was my stunt double, was able to work me into the fight, knowing how I move, how Pullo moves and reacts, so I was able to just slip in.
“At the end of it I took the whole stunt team for a meal. The look on their faces was like, ‘what, an actor is taking the stunt boys for a meal?’ But we had the best night. I took them to one of my favourite restaurants in the centre of Rome. There were about three or four couples, dead quiet, having their romantic dinner, when in troops a dozen surly stunt boys, all washed and primed and ready. We had an amazing meal and lots of wine. They were the most gentlemanly, sweetest bunch of people.”
Most recently seen in Disney’s under-rated John Carter, James Purefoy played historical power player Mark Antony. “I had a blast doing Mark Antony. He was a force to be reckoned with. He was brash, arrogant, lively and lived his life at 150 mph. I really like playing people who are exciting to watch and who burn brightly. Playing him, I felt more and more like JR Ewing!
“He’s a lover and a fighter, a great soldier, and Italians love that about him. Even in present-day Rome, if somebody’s called Marco Antonio it’s because they’re a beautiful man. He wasn’t a romantic though. Accounts of the time, documentary evidence, show him as somebody who was brutal, a big drinker and a womaniser.
“He used to ride around Rome in a chariot, dressed as Dionysus, and the chariot was pulled by six lions. He was also fantastically brave and his military judgement was excellent. He could be incredibly ruthless though. He famously took a legion to a town north of Rome that had mutinied when Caesar was out of the country in Egypt, and gave the order that every living thing in the town be killed. That meant men, women, children, dogs, cats, livestock; the birds in the trees were captured by nets, insects were stepped on. Nothing was left alive.
“It seems harsh today, but those were different times. It’s very hard to talk about him, or any of these people, in Judeo-Christian moral terms. At the time, as [historical consultant] Jonathan Stamp kept saying, ‘To be cruel was seen as a virtue and to be kind was seen to be weak’.
Comprising five acres of backlot and six soundstages at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, Rome boasted the largest standing set in the world, comprising five acres of backlot and six soundstages at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. Employing an international crew of 350 people, the series required over 4000 pieces of wardrobe. 2500 pieces were used in the first three episodes alone. Approximately 1, 250 pairs of shoes and sandals were made in Bulgaria. 250 chain mail tunics for soldiers, each weighing 36lbs, were made in India. Rome used as many as 40 horses for one scene, and on the busiest day of shooting, 750 actors and extras for the scene of Caesar’s triumph.
Clearly it’s true what they say: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Buy or rent the series now, on Blu-ray and DVD, from blockbuster.co.uk.