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The Untold Truth Of HBO's Rome

In a time before Netflix and other streaming services conquered television, HBO made history with the production of an epic series unlike any seen before. "Rome" possessed a scale normally reserved for feature-length Hollywood films, not the small screen. Yet, the success of "The Sopranos" had shown that the premium cable network could go beyond the expectations most people had for television at the time, as demonstrated by the slogan: "It's not TV. It's HBO."

For better or worse, those involved with the project approached it with the desire to create something grand. Though this endeavor proved successful, that same motivation also led to the inevitable downfall of the program. Years later, "Rome" is not just famous for making epic series more commonplace, but as a cautionary tale that even a popular show can be too expensive. 

HBO almost made Alexander the Great instead

Before "Rome," HBO had an "Alexander the Great" miniseries produced by Mel Gibson in the pipeline. The company announced the massive endeavor in 2002, with reports that the estimated budget would be $120 million — the same amount HBO spent to make "Band of Brothers." According to Variety, Mary Renault's novels "Fire From Heaven" and "The Persian Boy" served as the source material for the adaptation. The project advanced to the point that production was scheduled to start in England and Europe for the summer of that year. However, the network ultimately chose "Rome" in place of "Alexander." 

In an interview with Den of Geek, showrunner Bruno Heller explained, "It turned out that Mel Gibson was going to do 'Alexander,' but he wouldn't be Alexander. [But HBO] didn't want to be in business with Mel Gibson as a director-producer without Mel Gibson as [the star]." After the project collapsed, "Rome" became a more viable option and instead, HBO took the risk to produce an epic without any major movie stars attached.

The series cost HBO and the BBC over $100 million to produce

HBO may not have spent big on stars like Mel Gibson, but that does not mean that "Rome" was cheap to produce. With a cost that may have reached as high as $110 million for the first season, "Rome" is one of the most expensive series ever created. As Den of Geek pointed out, even "Game of Thrones" began with a budget of only $60 million for Season One.

While interviewed, Kevin McKidd, one of the leads of "Rome," described the beautiful, expertly detailed, and extravagant sets that were created with such a substantial amount of money. He said, "It was the first time anybody had tried this, so we just had to spend the money. And I think they figured out, it seems, ways to do it smarter or for less ... because our show came out of the gate just huge and bawdy and big, and unapologetic."

To help raise the huge funds necessary for such an expensive project, HBO partnered with the BBC. Yet, as reported by The Independent, HBO paid the lion's share of the cost, with a spokesperson admitting the BBC contributed far less than the network.

Cities like Bombay were used as inspiration for Rome

As alluded to by Time Magazine, the classical world has long been incorrectly associated with clean, white surfaces due to the weathered appearance of ruins, pillars, and other structures. So, the series creators wanted to get as far away from that image as possible and depict Roman society in a much more realistic fashion.

Ancient Rome was a vibrant city filled with markets, along with all sorts of social gatherings and community events. Yet, since it was densely packed with people, the streets were often crowded and filthy. As production designer Joseph Bennett described to The Independent, "So gradually you build up a picture of a city that's very crowded, wet, smelly, noisy – and hot. There's a contemporary account from a man who sleeps on his roof to escape the oppressive heat, and is driven mad by the noise and smell. It must have been like living in Soho, only with insane wealth and insane poverty."

When describing his view of the city to The New York Times, Bruno Heller said, "Rome of that period was more like Bombay or Mexico City. It was a dirty, wild, savage place." Executive producer Frank Doelger made similar comments in an interview with Time. He emphasized how beautifully colored Rome was, but also gritty and filled with pornographic graffiti and public latrines, like Bombay or Calcutta in his mind.

The studio thought British actors sounded more Roman

When Kevin McKidd reflected on his experience while filming "Rome" to Den of Geek, he said, "It was almost like summer camp for British actors. We all got to live there; we went out for long dinners every night and we'd speak to Kenneth and all the older actors, who told us such amazing stories about all their time in the theater." The production likely felt like that to McKidd because most of the actors involved were British — an odd choice since the bulk of the characters are supposed to be ancient Latin speakers.

According to The Independent, this happened because the series creators thought that any hint of an American accent would have been even worse for authenticity. A BBC mole allegedly revealed that "they were anxious to avoid any trace of Hollywood. They tend to think English actors sound more convincingly Roman." Even if the performers were relatively unknown to the Hollywood scene, some, like Kenneth Cranham, were huge stars of the British stage.

Rome was filmed on a massive set

The series may not have been filmed on the modern streets of Rome, but it was produced nearby on an enormous set located at the renowned Cinecittà Studios where classics like "Roman Holiday," "Ben-Hur," and "Cleopatra" were made. More recently, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was shot on the lot. According to The New York Times, remnants of that set remained just beyond the gigantic re-creation of Rome.

The exceptionally large crew had a lot to work with since the project spawned five acres and six sound-stages (per The Independent). For comparison, "Cleopatra" only used two studios and a portion of the back-lot. In just four months, the life-sized replica of the city was constructed, including lavish villas, rugged apartments, elaborate temples, and the Forum. Everything was built to last for several seasons, as Joseph Bennett said, "It has to have a certain amount of longevity, like ancient Rome."

Vorenus and Pullo were real Romans

Many of the characters that appear in "Rome" are recognizable even to modern audiences. Epic figures like Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony are not just key components to standard knowledge of the ancient world, but they became more well-known through popular culture long before the debut of HBO's "Rome." But the series creators wanted to show the lives of common people as well. Therefore, the two main characters of the series, Lucius Vorenus (McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), were based on real-life Romans of the lower class. According to Den of Geek, they were the only soldiers who Julius Caesar mentioned by name in his writings. Little is known about the actual men, so the writers were free to create their own stories purely for entertainment. 

What we do know comes from Caesar's own account of his Gallic Wars. In these conflicts, the duo were Roman centurions in the 13th Legion. The general said, "In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pulfio, and L. Varenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity." After describing a moment when the companions' fierce competition led to great valor in battle, Caesar ended with, "Nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other."

The leads' relationship mirrored that of their characters

Kevin McKidd really wanted to be considered for the role of Lucius Vorenus, yet at first, the studio preferred him for Titus Pullo. McKidd explained to Den of Geek that the struggle continued for some time, and he almost declined to appear in the show, but eventually got the part after begging for a screen test as the character. The decision proved to be a success because both he and co-star Ray Stevenson had great chemistry throughout the series' two seasons.

McKidd also pointed out the fascinating way that his relationship with Stevenson off-screen mirrored the characters they played. He said, "Initially, he and I clashed. We just had very different styles. Ray's this big, larger than life personality, and as Bruno would say, I'm much more this 'Presbyterian,' or you could say a little more controlling ... and we ended up at loggerheads a lot, and fighting, and being difficult in the first season." McKidd and Stevenson became close friends by Season 2, just like Vorenus and Pullo, and they remain close to this day.

High production costs ended the series

"Rome" did very well following its debut, so it was given the green light for a second season. Unfortunately, the production costs of another season cut too deeply into HBO's overall budget. Therefore, it made the decision to end "Rome" after Season 2 before it had even aired. The cancellation may have been a mistake. The second season was not as well received by critics, but it did earn more Emmy awards than the previous year. 

After seeing the huge amount of international DVD sales, some at HBO reportedly regretted the choice. But as Kevin McKidd said to Den of Geek, by that point "they couldn't go back on that, or felt they couldn't." Even if HBO lamenting cancelling "Rome" once Season 2 dropped, it probably was already too late. According to Reuters, not only were the sets destroyed, but the actors had been released from their contracts and already landed lead roles in other projects. These aspects alone would have made reestablishing the series for a third season nearly impossible to achieve.

Major tension between HBO and Cinecittà Studios

HBO decided to cancel "Rome" not just because the series was exceptionally expensive, but also behind-the-scenes drama that led executives to regret working with Cinecittà Studios. In the interview with Den of Geek, Bruno Heller described the difficult situation: "It's Italy, I love it, and it's part of the culture, but you were there to be picked over and for them to, in completely formal and legitimately legal ways, take as much money out of the production as possible."

For this reason and other factors, the showrunner believed Hollywood is hesitant to return to Cinecittà. According to France 24, the studios are acutely aware of the situation and desperate to reverse the trend. So, in an attempt to reclaim some its former glory, Cinecittà has received a huge fund of $292 million to upgrade the facilities and entice top film executives to come back.

After the way things went down for "Rome," the problem may be more complicated than just throwing money at it. Heller explained that executives were also frustrated with Italian officials. He said, "At one stage, the Italian government issued arrest warrants or provisional arrest warrants for all the fiduciary producers of the show. And that's a sort of a standard Italian business practice, but when buttoned-down straight-laced lawyers from New York are flying out to Rome and discovering that this is [how business is done], people were spooked."

Several seasons of storylines were crammed into one

When HBO informed Bruno Heller of its decision to cancel "Rome," the news proved quite unexpected. He had only written half of the script for the second season at that point, but he had grand plans for the future that he quickly had to cut. In an interview with Reuters, he stated, "The second was going to end with the death of Brutus. Third and fourth season would be set in Egypt. Fifth was going to be the rise of the messiah in Palestine. But because we got the heads-up that the second season would be it, I telescoped the third and fourth season into the second one, which accounts for the blazing speed we go through history near the end. There's certainly more than enough history to go around."

The showrunner struggled to remove so much of his planned story, a fact that remains clear a decade later. In a more recent conversation with Den of Geek, Heller reiterated not only the difficulty of rewriting the script, but also the disappointment he experienced leaving out many of the juicy details. He said, "Because when you take out that much history, the jump between the death of Caesar and Marc Antony taking over, and his death in Egypt, it was a huge amount of quite obscure but great, scandalous, fascinating, eventful history."

Italian audiences disliked the series

While "The Sopranos" was reportedly a hit both in the U.S. and Italy, HBO's follow-up series did not enjoy the same prestige. Italian audiences were very critical of "Rome" for multiple reasons, ranging from perceived historical inaccuracies to what some saw as the ridiculousness of censoring frontal nudity. Though the blame for that second criticism seems to fall on RAI, the studio that co-produced the Italian version, a major aspect that irked many Italian viewers spawned from HBO and the BBC.

According to RAI drama executive Paola Masini, Italian audiences did not like the hiring decisions for the lead actors. "Many Italian journalists and commentators just don't want to see their history depicted by Anglo-Saxons. Watching British actors playing Romans rubs a lot of people the wrong way and prompted the press to find fault with the historical accuracy," they told Variety. Newspapers like Corriere Della Sera labelled "Rome" as "historical misinformation," pointing to the creative liberties the companies took for the relationship between Mark Antony and Atia, as well as how Caesar's insecurity about his balding went unaddressed.

The Rome set caught fire after the show ended

As if fate itself felt the series should end, a fire broke out at Cinecittà Studios several months after the "Rome" finale. Late on August 9, 2007, flames ignited in a warehouse used to store old film and then spread from there, according to CBC News. Though only around 3% of the massive area burned (via The Hollywood Reporter), the "Rome" set bore the brunt of the damage due to its wooden construction and synthetic materials. While the villa area and the Forum remained untouched, nearly a third of the slum section was lost.

Since the fire occurred at night, it took some time before firefighters were alerted, allowing the flames grow as high as 125 feet. However, the timing also meant the professionals were able to reach the scene quickly due to a lack of traffic and prevent the fire from spreading any further. Even better, no one was harmed during the incident, which was later determined to be an accident likely caused by a short circuit.

Possible future feature film continuation

"Rome" may have ended prematurely, but the story could pick up again on the big screen. Just a year after the finale, Ray Stevenson could not hold back his excitement at that possibility, and Bruno Heller also voiced his desire to work on a feature-length continuation. When speaking with Reuters, the showrunner said, "There is talk of doing a movie version. It's moving along. It's not there until it is there. I would love to round that show off." Sadly, over a decade later, none of the rumored plans have come to fruition. However, there is still hope. 

In 2020, Kevin McKidd revealed what he had uncovered about the possible screenplay to Den of Geek: "I do know that Bruno has written a movie script. It's sat on a shelf for a long, long time and it's all about what happens after season 2. Fifteen years have gone by, and Vorenus didn't die. Vorenus is alive and well but has been in hiding for many years, protecting the young boy [Caesarion], who is now a man. I still feel like we should revisit that." McKidd also stated that he would drop anything to reprise his role as Vorenus, so with Heller and Stevenson also firmly on board, it may still happen.

Rome laid the groundwork for Game of Thrones

Since "Rome" came first, it's not much of a surprise that the series paved the way for the next major HBO production: "Game of Thrones." In fact, Kevin McKidd pointed out that key producers like Frank Doelger transitioned to the project with a lot of crucial experience gleaned from the highs and lows of shipping "Rome." Bruno Heller also stressed that they had learned how to lower production costs and still create an amazing show (via Den of Geek).

To say that "Game of Thrones" was popular is a massive understatement, and there is already a prequel series set to debut in August 2022. Its success also helped carve out a space for more fantasy book adaptations, such as "The Witcher" and "Shadow and Bone." With the original "Game of Thrones" completed, HBO could revisit its roots, drawing on all the lessons it has learned to bring "Rome," the epic series that started it all, back to life.