LOS ANGELES – Back in 52 B.C., Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo were bit players in Julius Caesar's sweeping account of the Gallic Wars. Now these two soldiers assigned to the conquerer's 13th Legion have leading roles in HBO's lavish new series "Rome," (search) about historic events as seen through the eyes of ordinary men.
"These names actually walked the earth ... It made you think, 'My God, you are going to carry somebody's name. Let's flesh him out. Let's see what he is!'" says Ray Stevenson ("The Theory of Flight," "King Arthur"), who plays Pullo, a big, bold man who loves a fierce fight, a stiff drink and a good whore.
Kevin McKidd ("Trainspotting") plays disciplined and dedicated Vorenus, who returns home after years of battles to a wife who may not have been faithful and a Republic that's on the brink of civil war.
"These are the only two ordinary soldiers mentioned by Caesar in his book, so the idea was to do a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take," says Bruno Heller, the series' co-creator, executive producer and writer. He refers, of course, to the two minor characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" who became the title characters of a widely acclaimed Tom Stoppard play.
"I essentially took the seed of that idea to try to tell a big, historical epic, but from the street level, the everyman's point of view," Heller explains.
"It's a wonderful device to be able to show the huge events in history this way. Sometimes it is the man in the street who drops the stone that causes the ripple, which upsets the empire. I'm sure it's happening today as we speak," says Stevenson.
"Rome" debuts 9 p.m. EDT Sunday.
"History goes on and on," says Carolyn Strauss, HBO's president of entertainment. "When the first three scripts came in, we said, 'You know what? Let's keep going with it.'" Scripts for a second season have been written, but filming has not yet been greenlighted.
Like the city, "Rome" certainly wasn't built in a day. The idea was first put into development in 1998 and the first scripts were written three years later. Pre-production started in 2003 and took six months.
With a budget of $100 million, the first 12 episodes were shot in about 14 months with a crew of 350 in and around Rome, where five acres of standing sets, including a re-creation of the Forum, were constructed on the backlot of Cinecitta Studios.
There was considerable re-shooting on the first three episodes to incorporate all the detail and historical accuracy HBO felt necessary. More than 4,000 costumes were made using materials authentic to the period.
Strauss has no concerns about the lack of success of such ancient history tales as last year's feature "Troy" or ABC's miniseries "Empire," which didn't achieve the glory of "Gladiator," the 2000 best-picture Oscar winner that revived interest in sword-and-sandal dramas.
She believes Heller's story and characters provide "the sort of visceral blood and guts and love and lust and hate, and all that, which you need to transcend the toga."
Ciaran Hinds, who played Rochester in the 1997 TV "Jane Eyre," is Caesar, catalyst for the events in the soldiers' lives. However he remains, as he reportedly was to those who knew him, an enigmatic and closed-off personality.
"Caesar was frightening to be around ... if ever anyone was born to be a king, he was. But they (the Romans) had an ancestral fear of kings, similar to the American fear to a degree — pride in their liberty," says Heller, noting there are parallels to modern politics that can be read into the story lines.
Heller hopes that his depiction of Roman mores strips away the "marble-hued" judgments imposed by the more conservative cultures that followed.
"Romans didn't have our body shame and fear of sexuality," he says. "I think that is part of the modern fascination with that world ... there was a lack of shame about those things, that we had to portray with a lack of shame in order to make it work."