New $100m TV epic set to rewrite history

Senators, slavery - and central heating. Every schoolboy knows that ancient Rome was the crucible of civilisation. But a steamy $100m TV epic is set to rewrite history. John Walsh reports
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Visitors to Rome in the 21st century marvel at the survival of the city's ancient past in the very stones in the streets. It gives the heart a tiny but glorious lift to find oneself walking on a flagstone inscribed, 2,000 years ago, with the initials SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus).

Ah yes, we think, Rome - such nobility, such class, such a crucible of political idealism. When almost every other nation in the world was ruled by a tyrant, a monarch or a tribal chief, Rome believed in republicanism, an experiment that took the city-state to unprecedented levels of world power, from which it mutated into an empire and collapsed under the weight of its own corruption.

From this perspective, we usually think of Rome as the first "maximum city". It sits in our heads, inviolable, Olympian, a city caught between earth and heaven. We dream of ancient Rome as a picture gallery, with the seven hills, the Colosseum, the Forum, the Temples of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Concord, the Tiber, the arrow-straight Appian Way, and the stunning villas of the oligarchs.

We know the place from the movies. Film-wise, it is where all roads lead to: Cleopatra's stately (and interminable) entrance into the city, Ben-Hur's journey to the headlong chariot race in the Circus Maximus, the arrival of the gladiators, to be drilled into heroism by Russell Crowe.

Through the miracle of computer graphics, we saw white marble everywhere, and massive statues of the gods holding weapons or pots. In Gladiator, the view from upper windows revealed a gleaming cityscape of brutal angles.

But how close was the real-life Rome to the received notions of the city in our heads? The question has been pondered with a certain urgency by the BBC and the American HBO studio for a couple of years now as they prepare to launch upon the world the biggest TV blockbusterama seen in years. Rome, as it's bluntly titled, cost $100m (about £60m) and will invade your living room for 12 weeks in the autumn, carpet-bombing British audiences with togas, triumvirates and troilism, backstabbing and betrayal, slavery and sexual excess, in a visual assault rarely seen since... well, since the last episode in I, Claudius in 1976.

The BBC has put up some production money, but it is "nothing like as great" (admits a BBC spokesperson) as HBO's commitment. The latter, which is responsible for The Sopranos and Sex and the City, signed up a remarkable roster of British actors to go to Cinecitta (the famous studio lot outside Rome).

Ciaran Hinds plays Julius Caesar, Lindsay Duncan his lover Servilia, and James Purefoy a swishy Mark Antony, "They were anxious to avoid any trace of Hollywood," a BBC mole informed me. "They tend to think English actors sound more convincingly Roman."

The story is taken from the most dramatic period in Rome's history, when the republic was in its final days. Through the lives of two grumpy footsoldiers we watch a battle-wearied Julius Caesar returning to Rome with his army after conquering Gaul, heading for a confrontation with Pompey Magnus, who holds power back in the city. Cleverly conflating the action of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, the series traces the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March 44BC, the civil war that followed, the jockeying for power between two sets of triumvirates - and the inexorable rise of Caesar's nephew Caius Octavian, who became the first emperor, Augustus.

In search of authenticity, the co-producers built a massive new Rome at Cinecitta. It was five acres in area and used six sound-stages (the costly 1963 movie Cleopatra, by contrast, used only two studios and some of the back-lot), and set out to portray a Rome that was refreshed and free of clichés. What this means is a Rome that looks more like backstreet Tangiers or Calcutta, where the temples are dirty, the columns gaudily painted, the streets full of mud and the walls covered in graffiti.

"My brief was to get the place as realistic as possible," says Joseph Bennett, the production designer. "I didn't approach it as an academic, I took references from all over the place. We know that Rome was a huge, chaotic, urban monstrosity - remember, a million people lived in the city. Many lived in huge tenement blocks called insules. The owners would build them eight storeys high and rent them out. It's interesting to find that the republic introduced zoning laws to stop buildings going any higher. The lower storeys would be built in brick and the upper levels with timber and mud. The further away from water they were, the cheaper the rent. They were always burning down.

"Rome was terribly noisy all the time with the constant clacking of wooden wheels on stones. And it was wet - the city fathers were good at bringing water into the city, through the aqueduct system, but not at getting it out again. The Tiber flooded all the time. You could be knee-deep in water in the middle of town. The sewage system was often overloaded, which made things worse.

"So gradually you build up a picture of a city that's very crowded, wet, smelly, noisy - and hot. There's a contemporary account from a man who sleeps on his roof to escape the oppressive heat, and is driven mad by the noise and smell. It must have been like living in Soho, only with insane wealth and insane poverty. There was a surfeit of money around, and there was always a lot of construction work going on," Bennett says.

So - a city that's a sodden, smelly building site. But at least there was a lot of colour too, according to Jonathan Stamp, the production's fast-talking consultant on history and archaeology. "Ancient Rome was a much more colourful place than you would think," he says. "The temple friezes and columns and statues would have been painted in vivid colours. But archaeological sites often give a false impression of grandeur because only the really important buildings - the temples and arenas - have survived."

Bennett agrees: "Lots of the columns weren't marble at all, they were made of stucco and cement, painted along the lines of Etruscan decoration."

Stamp enjoys turning over our received opinions about many things - like Roman sport. Yes, gladiatorial games were popular, but not half as popular as chariot racing. Chariot fans split into four armies - Greens, Reds, Whites and Blues - who fought each other in the Circus Maximus and daubed encouraging or obscene slogans on city walls.

Communality - gatherings of people for a variety of reasons - is a constant theme of Stamp's and Bennett's new view of old Rome. Some gatherings were perhaps less fun than others. Communal defecation involved up to 30 citizens sitting in a horseshoe shape, to chat and gossip about topical subjects and domestic woes while obeying the call of nature and wiping themselves with a reeking sponge.

Sex could also be communal, but voyeuristic rather than inclusive. If Mark Antony made love to Cleopatra, he would think nothing of his servant (or hers) being in the room at the time. "It was what they did then and was considered perfectly normal," Stamp says.

In striving for "normality," the producers have done their best to make the cast look like real Romans, with bad teeth and complexions and rumpled looks, the product of a time without shower gel, shampoo or designer hairbrushes. Stamp cannot abide what he calls the Holly-Rome look - "starched white togas and everything sanitised. The whole ethos of our Rome is to do something entirely different."

Different, but genuinely fascinating. In this reinvented (and, they assure us, entirely true) Rome, a jumble of garish buildings, grimy air and filthy streets, a grand lady can visit a temple and have a shower in bull's blood as the animal is butchered in an upstairs room.

In this Rome, Cleopatra is revealed to be a bit of a snore at dinner parties - exactly what Cicero thought of her. In this Rome, gladiator fights were not epic battles in the Colosseum but small-scale skirmishes along the lines of a travelling circus.

"Fumum et opes strepitumque," wrote Horace in Book III of his Odes. "Oh, the smoke and wealth and din of Rome!" For the first time, perhaps, we may be able to see exactly what he meant.