I initially dismissed Rome as an I, Claudius wannabe, but it quickly sucked me in with its combo of extravagant soap and painstakingly intricate political drama. Like Deadwood, Rome prides itself on scrupulous realism: the obscene graffiti, gruesome temple sacrifices, graphic sexual experimentation, and quirky cuisine. (Anyone for grilled savory mouse?) You can practically smell the stink of ancient Rome, a city of vice and venality, snobbery and class warfare.
Amid all this realism lurks a streak of extreme implausibility, though. Nearly every major plotline is nudged forward by two army buddies, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). Vorenus is a puritanical but honorable soldier’s soldier, while Pullo is a lunkhead who acts on his instincts. They have a knack for being at the right place at the right time and doing the wrong thing—actions that have vast historical repercussions. First the duo recovers Caesar’s gold standard, which restores the troops’ shaken morale and prepares them for their march on Rome. Caesar intends to install himself as a benign despot, without bloodshed. But then Pullo accidentally sets off a battle in the city square, ensuring civil war. (The episode title: “How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic.”) And again he turns the tide by stumbling on a roadside cart laden with gold stolen from Rome’s treasury. He and Vorenus turn it over to Caesar, shifting things decisively in the would-be emperor’s favor. The coincidences go on and on, until these guys resemble a team of ancient Zeligs. Cleopatra even chooses them to sire her baby, which she passes off as Caesar’s.
It’s become a party game in my house, spotting how and when these bumbling history men will strike again. It seems to have occurred to the writers too, because later episodes self-referentially comment on the men’s luck. At one point Caesar decides not to punish them for some terrible misstep, explaining, “They have powerful gods behind them.” Yeah, they’re called scriptwriters.