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The new HBO miniseries makes living history Larry Flynt could love. Hurrah.

Well, it's not exactly Sex in the Eternal City, but HBO's new series, ROME (8 p.m. Sundays on HBO), certainly puts the flesh back into 52 B.C. A co-production between the BBC and America's homegrown miniseries-producing juggernaut, HBO, ROME turns out to be a mostly happy hybrid of Masterpiece Theater diction and Penthouse full-frontal nudity. The August 28 pilot episode introduced the main characters in the historical pageant - including Caesar, Cicero, Pompey, and Atia - while setting into motion the wheels of conflict between several of Rome's most powerful, and screwed-up, families. The rest of the 12-part series is, as they say, history.

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There were no twins suckling from a surrogate mother wolf at the birth of ROME, but no expense nor special effect was spared, from recreated murals to well-populated street scenes, in the creation of the 12-part miniseries. What it gained in props over its predecessor, I, Caligula, however, it lost in stellar acting.

The gold standard of classical adaptation is, of course, the BBC's own I, Claudius from the mid-1970s, which featured an astounding cast, including Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, and the pre-Star Trek and extremely hairy Patrick Stewart. The immense pleasure of watching I, Claudius derived in no small part from its unrelenting catalogue of poisonings, assassinations, sexual trysts, and power grabs. It was Dallas in togas, The Apprentice in sandals. ROME's mostly British cast can't quite measure up to the acting chops of its forebears, but it has managed to keep the sudsy, sly tone intact.

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As Atia, the megalomaniac mother of Octavian and Octavia, Polly Walker chews up the scenery - even while casually shedding her clothing in front of her teenage son. (Armchair psychologists and future conquerors of the world, take note.) Just as Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) begins his campaign to dislodge Pompey the Great (Kenneth Cranham) from his political base in Rome, Atia sends Octavian (Max Pirkis) to ingratiate himself into his grand-uncle's graces. Pirkis makes a pitch-perfect Octavian: a temperamental, feckless teenager who will nonetheless prove himself a politician of genius. As Octavia, Kerry Condon has the thankless task of constantly disrobing herself for higher cable ratings. Supporting roles - such as James Purefoy's Mark Antony - are well cast, and two characters created from scratch - Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo - are remarkably amusing, like Shakespearean comic relief.

Rome

Sundays 8pm CST
HBO
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In general, Bruno Heller's script forces characters to babble in Classics-speak, that strange Hollywood tongue featuring Shavian inverted syntax ("Caesar, might I have a moment with you?") and grandiloquent turns of phrase ("The honor of the 13th legion holds you back!"). The pilot's director, Michael Apted, often wittily juxtaposes the highfalutin' rhetoric of the characters with the more banal trappings of everyday Roman life: In a particularly humorous scene, a Roman soldier, thrown in the slammer for insubordination, doodles a graffito of an ejaculating penis. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand Latin words.

Rumor has it that ROME cost upwards of $100 million to produce. It definitely was not built in a day. The outdoor scenes - of markets and battles and parades - are impressive, showy affairs with zillions of extras and miles of fabric. And while some other recent big-budget classics have been big bombs (Oliver Stone's Alexander springs to mind), ROME never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. If nothing else, ROME knows how to play the ratings game well: entertainment first, Edward Gibbon second.

By Thomas Jenkins


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