by Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & Rome & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & never thought HBO could outdo Band of Brothers, but they have come pretty close with Rome. Over the course of 12 episodes (on five DVDs; a sixth contains special features), you follow Julius Caesar from the frontiers of Gaul to the shores of Alexandria to the streets of Rome. Along the way you meet Pompey, Caesar's rival as ruler of the Roman Empire, along with the extended family he left behind as he went campaigning, including the young Octavian. But the filmmakers were wise in choosing to follow even more closely the shifting fortunes of two soldiers in Caesar's army, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. This way you get a look at how both the patricians and how the commoners lived -- all in stunning, meticulously researched detail.

Perhaps most captivating is the depiction of Roman religion, which was quite situational. Depending on your current needs, you could give alms to an emissary of a particular god on a street corner or pray each night to your own favorite god at a shrine in your home. One early ritual, apparently true to history, was shockingly bloody.

Filmed in Italy, Rome's sets were built by Italian craftsmen -- even the extras are actual, modern-day Romans. In this production, you will feel like you have seen Rome, circa 50 BC. And it doesn't just look good -- there's plenty of drama (even if we all know how Caesar's story ends). The, uh, political back-stabbing between Brutus' mother Servilia (who was once Caesar's lover) and Atia, Caesar's scheming niece, is as good as anything you'd have ever seen on Dynasty or Dallas. And Vorenus' scramble to make a living, along with Pullo's fall into despair, culminate in perhaps the nastiest gladiator scene yet committed to film. (Pullo, played by Ray Stevenson, is a hoot -- scary at times, but still a classic character.)

The casting all around is perfect, with Ciarin Hinds playing Caesar as the kind of gentlemanly despot you can't help but root for. James Purefoy nails the ambition and anger of Marc Antony, while the skinny Tobias Menzies plays Brutus as tentative and sympathetic.

Of course the final episode is cataclysmic, for both the patricians and the soldiers. Unfortunately there are no more episodes, so we won't see the epic fights that break out between Brutus, Marc Antony and Octavian. That is until March, when a second 12-episode season starts on HBO.

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