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HBO Gives Graphic Views of the Grandeur of Rome

It looks like Home Box Office has another hit on its hands with Rome.

Co-produced with the British Broadcasting Corp., the 12-episode series, like most epics about the ancient empire, focuses on the period just before the crumbling of Rome’s republic. The centerpiece of the series is Julius Caesar’s (Ciarán Hinds, The Phantom of the Opera,Road to Perdition) rise to power and his conflict with old friend Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham, Layer Cake) as they struggle to control Rome.

It is clear that most of the reported $100 million spent on the series is on the screen. No expense was spared on details: This is not a sanitized, museum-piece view. Rather, Rome is depicted as a dirty, crowded and bustling city. The set — which HBO said is the world’s largest standing one, comprising six soundstages and five acres of backlot — is amazingly intricate and gives the impression that the series was shot on location.

Rome also pays attention to everyday life, religion and even surgery. One especially squeamish scene involves a brain operation on a Roman soldier; another shows the ritual sacrifice of a bull. Fight scenes are chaotic and somewhat gory.

But where would Rome be without its decadence? Rome is quite heavy with graphic sex that would not seem out of place on HBO sister service’s Cinemax After Dark.

The story opens in Gaul, where Caesar’s troops end their eight-year campaign. As Caesar’s support grows in Italy, Pompey, Cato (Karl Johnson) and Cicero (David Bamber) urge the Senate to take action to quell his rising popularity.

Meanwhile, Caesar has his own problems: restive troops and a golden eagle has been stolen. He sends soldiers, Lucius Veronas (Kevin McKidd, Trainspotting) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson, King Arthur), to retrieve his standard. Along the way, they rescue Caesar’s nephew Octavian (Max Pirkis) from Pompey’s men, elevating their status in the legion.

At home, Caesar’s niece Atia (Polly Walker, Patriot Games) is making her own moves, offering Pompey the hand of her already-married daughter Octavia (Kerry Condon).

Overall, Rome is blessed with interesting storylines and good acting — though, everyone seems to have an English accent. It does tend to have a more soap opera bent than Turner Network Television’s 2003 miniseries Caesar. But the bedroom intrigue and the side plots only enhance the story, making it fit well with sister series The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

Rome debuts August 28 at 9 p.m. on HBO.