Epic Series 'Rome' Set for HBO Debut

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Rome was sacked 1,500 years ago, an anniversary not lost on HBO. Classics commentator Elaine Fantham offers some historical insight on the cable giant's new 12-part series.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Ancient Rome is back--and with a vengeance, you might say. This week, we observe the 1,500th or so anniversary of the time in 410 when Alaric, chief of the Visigoths, led his army into Rome and sacked it. On Sunday night, HBO debuts its new series called "Rome," a 12-episode series produced with the BBC which you can tell because all the Romans have British accents.

(Soundbite from "Rome")

Unidentified Man: Four hundred years after the last king was driven from the city, the Republic of Rome rules many nations but cannot rule itself. The city is constantly roiled by conflict between the common people and the nobility. Power is shared and order maintained by two soldiers, old friends Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Gaius Julius Caesar.

SIMON: Joining us now from Toronto to discuss both of these occasions is our classics commentator Elaine Fantham.

Elaine, thanks very much for being back with us.

ELAINE FANTHAM reporting:

Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You know, I must say I don't know what sacking is exactly.

FANTHAM: To me...

SIMON: Yeah.

FANTHAM: ...the sacking of a city is the ancient equivalent of a terrorist attack. It's the worst thing that could happen to your own society. Actually, in the "Iliad," in Homer's "Iliad," when they are trying to persuade the warrior Achilles to stop sulking and rejoin the Greek attack on Troy, his old tutor comes to him and says, `You have to know what happened in Calydon when the hero, Meleager, would refuse to fight.' And his wife said to him, `You have to think of the kind of things that happen when a city is sacked. They kill the men, they render the buildings into dust, they rape the women and they take the women and children that have survived into slavery. That's the kind of thing that happens when a city is sacked.'

SIMON: When Rome was sacked, Elaine, was it still the most splendid city in the world?

FANTHAM: The fact was the empire had been moved by Constantine to Constantinople, not surprisingly, around 300. Christianity had been made the official religion. The empire had split. The last emperor of the whole West, Theodosius, died and he wasn't even living in Rome. So I don't know that many people, really, outside Rome cared all that much.

SIMON: Why was Alaric, the chief of the Visigoths, so eager to sack Rome if it was diminished goods?

FANTHAM: Alaric, in fact, had been working for the Roman Empire to fight their other enemies. Unfortunately, either they decided not to pay him or they kept putting off the moment when they paid him. And it was only when he hadn't been paid that he besieged Rome.

SIMON: So the sacking of Rome was motivated by a bad debt?

FANTHAM: Yes.

SIMON: Oh, my word. This is something good to keep in mind the next time that you don't get the check from one of your mobile phone companies that they promised. And, of course, it was just irresistible for us to ask you to watch the first two episodes of the HBO-BBC co-production of "Rome."

FANTHAM: Oh, well, yes. You know, the HBO has done a wonderful job. There's the formal political issue, the great conflict between Caesar and Pompei that brought the end of the Republic, and that they've done very well indeed. I looked for the characters that I knew from history, and they were all very convincing. In fact, I'm particularly interested in that bigoted figure Cato.

SIMON: Right, Cato. He ought to be in an institute in the Senate saying that Caesar ought to be impeached.

(Soundbite from "Rome")

Mr. KARL JOHNSON (Actor): (As Cato) I have a question concerning your friend and co-consul, Gaius Julius Caesar. Eight long years, he has gorged himself like a wolf on the blood of Gaul and thereby made himself monstrously rich. He wants to buy himself a crown. He wants to destroy the Republic and rule Rome as a bloody tyrant.

SIMON: That's actor Karl Johnson.

FANTHAM: He's absolutely right for the part. He sounds like a lot of intolerant, narrow-minded reactionaries that I remember from my youth.

SIMON: Hmm. Now totally superficial question, but I think it's related to scholarship. HBO and the BBC says that this production looks more like ancient Rome ever did than the big blockbuster films we've seen when all the buildings seem to be in pristine white.

FANTHAM: Well, this is absolutely so. For instance, there's a medical operation...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

FANTHAM: ...and you see the operation, clumsy and pathetic as it is. There's a gambling den and you see our hero Pullo losing money. You know, there's all authentic everyday life stuff.

SIMON: Well, you'll be watching the next ones, I expect.

FANTHAM: Eagerly.

SIMON: Elaine Fantham, our classics commentator here on WEEKEND EDITION. Thanks very much.

FANTHAM: Bye, Scott.

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