Taking on the ambitious 'Rome'

The series premieres next Sunday.
WESTWOOD, Calif. -- Actor James Purefoy stands beneath the flickering torch lights at the launch party for HBO's "Rome," politely declining a duo of clothiers eager to drape him in a toga for the evening. But he is not averse to the costume altogether. The British star, who portrays Marc Antony in the new series, has a six-year contract for the role. "I have great hopes for the series," he said.
Clearly, so does HBO, which is investing a reported $100 million in the most expensive series in its history. Shot entirely in Italy on the largest standing set in the world, "Rome," boasts a film crew similar in size to that of a major feature film. "It is a series that charts entirely new ground in terms of scope and ambition," said Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment.
The series went into development seven years ago and the current writer, Bruno Heller, has worked on it since 2000. Yet, as it comes out at the end of August, it is only one of a number of TV treatments of the ancient Romans. ABC's recent "Empire," also filmed in Rome at the same time as the HBO series, covered roughly the same historical period. The History Channel debuts "Rome: Engineering an Empire," and the National Geographic Channel has announced its own series, "Hannibal v. Rome."
Audience appeal
While Hollywood is often full of copycat ideas, the subject of empire is a hot topic for obvious reasons, said HBO's historical consultant, Jonathan Stamp. "There's something particularly resonant about that particular point in Roman history, maybe particularly in the United States," says Mr. Stamp. "[Rome] is wrestling with all the problems of whether or not it should expand, have an empire. If it does have an empire, how it should run that empire?"
HBO won't know whether the fall of the Roman Republic lifts its fortunes till the end of this month, but at least one trend is evident.
While many of the current HBO shows are set in and around the entertainment industry ("Comeback," "Entourage," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and the imminent comedy series titled "Extras"), "Rome" plays out against a vast canvas, one we could all benefit from understanding more clearly, said Heller.
"It was a moment that was pivotal in Western history," said Heller. "If things hadn't turned out the way they did at this particular point, the world that we live in now would be very different."

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