It's "Ben-Hur" meets "The Sopranos."
"Rome," (search) HBO's (search) new sweeping, multimillion-dollar, sword-and-sandal epic series, is poised to give viewers a down-and-dirty version of history, heralded by producers as the most authentic interpretation of life in the ancient city ever put on film.
"Very simply, the idea is to give the audience a look at Rome that has never before been done in either films or on television," says the show's executive producer, Frank Doelger. "Our plan is to take Rome out of the museum."
To do this, producers spent more than $11 million on lavish sets at Italy's fabled Cinecitta studio (search) to re-create Rome as it is believed to have truly been -- loud, grimy, smoky, covered in Latin graffiti, teeming with throngs of people, with rich and poor living cheek to cheek.
It is believed that the sum is the most ever spent to build a set for a television show.
The story -- slated to debut next fall -- unfolds in 54 B.C. and will track characters from different sides of Roman life.
"Rome" follows Julius Caesar (search) (Ciaran Hinds) and his inner circle while also focusing on the everyday lives of two soldiers and their families, a First Centurion named Lucius Vorenus and a Roman Legionary named Titus Pullo, played by relatively unknown British actors Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson.
In modern terms, Vorenus is a non-commissioned officer, considered something like a captain, and Pullo is a common soldier.
"They're a very unlikely twosome," says Doelger. "They have very different personalities and different world views, and their relationship develops and changes over the course of the series."
In the first episode, the audience meets Caesar, Vorenus and Pullo on the battlefield during Rome's final clash with the army of Gaul (France).
The time period was a tumultuous one that included civil wars, conquests, and a brutal class struggle between the wealthy and the poor, which could prove a rich backdrop for the epic.
Although only 12 episodes have been filmed for the first season, Doelger says Bruno Heller, the show's chief writer and executive producer, has mapped out at least 60 episodes -- enough to last for five years.
"Rome" will feature more sex and possibly disturbing ritualistic scenes than fans of period films are used to, while common wisdom about historical figures is likely to be shattered. Cleopatra (search) is portrayed as a dinner party bore instead of a vampy siren.
"They say that Caesar's nephew, Augustus, found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble," says Josh Stein, a history professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., who is not associated with the production. "It suggests that during the time of Caesar, Rome wasn't the magnificent thing you tend to see in most movies."
In HBO's version of Rome, it's noisy and international. There is mud everywhere, thanks to frequent flooding of the Tiber river, while wooden buildings frequently burn down to the ground.
Doelger describes it as a cross between New York and Calcutta, a place where the mundane and the spiritual overlap on every corner, and says the details of "Rome" have been painstakingly researched by a legion of scholars employed by producers.
"I think that the world that we are presenting is a great deal more authentic than any world that has ever been presented with some intelligence of ancient Rome," says Doelger.