Rome: The Long Road of the Original HBO Epic

Fifteen years after its premiere, we look back with Bruno Heller and Kevin McKidd on the influence of Rome. And why it ended.

Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and Kevin McKidd in Rome
Photo: HBO

It was the biggest show ever produced when it premiered on HBO. Filming in exotic international locations and on sets that went on for blocks, it was an epic spectacle that many whispered couldn’t be done on television. Not with its hundreds of extras in lavish costumes, and not with its cast of more than a dozen major characters. Yet HBO gambled big with a budget that exceeded $100 million on its first season.

These details might be mistaken by many as the genesis of Game of Thrones. But before HBO’s song of ice and fire, this was also the origin of the first actual modern TV epic. It was the story of Rome.

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In its debut, Rome was even more gargantuan in scale and opulent in design than Thrones’ first few years. Filmed at the legendary facilities of Cinecittà Studios in the actual Rome, HBO and showrunner Bruno Heller oversaw a vast recreation of antiquity during the life and times of Julius Caesar. From the austere grandeur of the pre-imperial Roman Forum to the eventual seediness of the gangs on the Aventine Hill, the final days of the Roman republic were reimagined in sweaty, shocking, and spectacularly expensive detail.

“We used the most modern scholarship, which suggests that all the sculptures were painted,” Heller says over Zoom as we reminisce about Rome and its Cinecittà extravagance 15 years after the series’ 2005 premiere. Every morning Heller would  be up at 4am, arriving early on set and getting lost in the art direction’s colors. “Walking out there at dawn into the Forum and seeing this world created, it was just magical. It gives me goosebumps now thinking about it, seeing a hundred [Gaul] tribesmen on horseback with great furry helmets charging down a hillside yelling, that sort of thing. No one makes things like that anymore. Even something like Game of Thrones would use CGI for the kind of things that we were doing for real.”

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Actor Kevin McKidd, who played one half of Rome’s soul, the honorable to a fault Lucius Vorenus, expresses similar awe when he thinks back at what they accomplished.

“I mean listen, none of these budgets were small, but I think Game of Thrones ended up being smaller than ours,” McKidd correctly points out. Whereas Rome was budgeted at $100 million when it premiered, Game of Thrones debuted with a more reasonable starting price tag of $60 million. Says McKidd, “Ours, 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.”

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Heller is even more succinct in describing Rome’s making.

“Most films, and even TV, is planning for battle,” Heller says. “Planning for a big TV series like [Rome] is like planning for war, for a campaign. It’s invading Russia.” He pauses, “You have to think about the retreat, as well.”

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This was Rome’s war: brief, bloody, and beautiful.

‘Very Unlikely to Be Made’

When HBO first hired Heller to take a crack at a Rome treatment, he didn’t think for a minute it would get made. In the early 2000s, HBO was a different place than it is now. The Sopranos and Sex and the City of course turned the premium cable network into the leader of the prestige cable revolution—or harbinger of peak TV as it would later be called—and the network had its eye on bigger and more dazzling projects. In 2001 HBO even released the most expensive miniseries ever up to that point with Band of Brothers. But that World War II-set series also had the names Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks attached as producers. The network still relied on bankability.

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So when Heller took a meeting about Rome, he was acutely aware he’d be unable to lend that same prestige to a sword and sandals epic. He’d written some scripts before at HBO and admired the vision of then-HBO chairman Chris Albrecht and Carolyn Strauss, then-president of HBO’s entertainment division. But he was being called in to discuss a show based on a preexisting miniseries pitch by John Milius and William J. MacDonald—a pitch the network was already wary toward.

“It’s one of those projects that’s really going for broke and very unlikely to be made, [given] the budget that was required,” Heller recalls of HBO’s attitude toward Milius and his vision. “They were paying me to write a script to take it at least to a respectable point at which time they can say, ‘Okay, thank you.’”

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Citing himself as “cheap” at the time, Heller recognized it was easier to pay a young writer for a treatment than a whole production crew for a pilot. So he used the opportunity as an excuse to immerse himself in Roman history and lore. This began via conversations with his co-creators Milius and MacDonald. Their central conceit already had in place the three characters of young Octavian, the boy who would be Augustus, first Emperor of Rome, as well as Roman centurions Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.

In history, as with the series, Pullo and Vorenus were the only Roman soldiers who Julius Caesar mentioned by name in his journals. But other than being Roman centurions in the 13th Legion, not much else is known of the men. And Heller took his first major liberty when he lit on the idea of changing Pullo from a centurion to a coarse, insubordinate soldier beneath Vorenus’ command.

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It was a savvy move that mapped the heart of the Rome series. Whereas most other fictions about this oft-dramatized era in history focused on the lives of the legendary patricians—be it Caesar and Octavian, or Marc Antony and Cleopatra—Rome would maintain all those characters and the lower tiers in daily Roman life. Through the introduction of Pullo and Vorenus, and their contentious friendship, the fall of the Roman republic suddenly becomes an upstairs/downstairs dramedy.

Says Heller, “The model that first sparked me on ‘oh, this is how to play it’ was [Tom Stoppard’s] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, because the larger story is so well known, like Hamlet, that it’s hard to tell that story. The downstairs story has to be more compelling than the upstairs story, because the upstairs story, a little like Batman, is a given. It’s a myth. Everyone knows what happens.”

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“There was a lot of very recent scholarship at that time that transformed people’s sense of what Roman [history] was,” Heller explains. “There was much more about the everyday life of Roman people, about how people would have lived in apartment blocks in the insular working class life, and looking at it from that modern perspective.”

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Reflecting on the dirtiness and filth that would be in the Roman Forum, the showrunner adds, “It’s lucky that practically every previous representation of Rome on any scale kind of went for the grand imperial late Edward Gibbon velvet drapes and marble columns. Even Gladiator went for that. Whereas, in fact, it looked much more like Calcutta or Bombay, and smelled like that.”

This also provided the writer the chance to explore Roman culture and custom with a greater push for authenticity than many Hollywood films of yore. For example, Heller attempted to learn how to read Latin at least as well as the uneducated Pullo—though he says he only got about as far as being able to recognize “oh that’s a pub” if he were walking the streets. More successfully he came to understand his vision of the Pagan working class mentality when he wrote a scene of Pullo praying to Portunus, the Roman god of locks and keys.

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It all informed an extravagant treatment for a series he’d end up writing half the episodes of (and he tells us all 22 installments of the show passed through his typewriter before shooting). Yet, at least per the co-creator, what got Rome greenlit was as much his innovations as the developments of an entirely different epic series at HBO.

“[Chris Albrecht] was looking for something that had to be big and that they had to put money behind,” Heller says. “I think it was going to be Mel Gibson doing Alexander.” Indeed, at the same time HBO was developing Rome, the network was also working with the then-beloved Oscar winning director behind Braveheart for a 10-part series on Macedonian conquest.

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“Then it turned out that Mel Gibson was going to do Alexander but he wouldn’t be Alexander,” Heller says. “[But] they didn’t want to be in business with Mel Gibson as a director-producer without Mel Gibson as [the star].”

As Gibson’s project imploded, Rome’s prospects would rise, sans any stars. Clearly things in the entertainment industry were about to change.

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A Bottle of Tequila in the Roman Forum

When speaking with McKidd over Zoom, the actor’s affection for Rome is profound. Not 20 feet from his screen rests Lucius Vorenus’ sword, which he safely keeps in his own home. Similarly, within the actor’s mind resides nothing but warm memories. He reminisces about seeing his children spend summers growing up around the actual ruins of the Roman Forum and Colosseum during production; and he savors still the long nights at Cinecittà with British theater legends like Kenneth Cranham, a fellow Scotsman who played Pompey Magnus.

“It was an incredibly social time,” says McKidd. “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.”

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But one relationship, perhaps the most significant of the entire series, was that shared by McKidd and his co-star Ray Stevenson, aka Titus Pullo. While there were of course other vital parts to the series, from worldly Ciarián Hinds as Caesar to Tobias Menzies’ despairingly well-intentioned Brutus—and one must never overlook Polly Walker’s Machiavellian Atia of the Julii (Heller’s favorite character)—the heart and soul of the series belongs to Pullo and Vorenus, the odd couple of 48 BCE.

Off-screen McKidd and Stevenson had known each other for years through mutual friends, but it wasn’t until they were in the final round of chemistry auditions in a Covent Garden hotel that they began a significant lifelong friendship. But then, it was a late epiphany to cast the red-haired and fiery McKidd as the straight-laced Vorenus.

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For the actor, the process began early when he bumped into Heller, as well as executive producer Anne Thomopoulos and director Michael Apted, while in Romania. At the time, McKidd was there filming the TV movie Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004), as it was cheaper to shoot a period piece about 16th century Scottish court intrigue in eastern Europe than actual Scotland. The Rome team was entertaining a similar idea.

“I’m strutting around in my thigh-high leather boots and period costume, and we’re riding horses and swinging swords, and all that stuff and having a great old time,” says McKidd. “And I hear these American voices in the corridor, so I come out, and here is this guy called Bruno Heller.” They immediately got to chatting about the Danny Boyle movie McKidd did, Trainspotting (1996), and about this new TV series focused on ancient Rome. McKidd quickly prepared with his current director a film reel of himself riding horses.

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Yet when HBO finally sent him a script, the producers didn’t want him for the Vorenus role; they saw him as Pullo.

On the casting process, McKidd remembers, “I said to them, ‘I’d love to come in and read, but I would really much rather read for the part of Lucius Vorenus.’ And they were like, ‘No, we really see you as maybe Pullo, can you read for Pullo?’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ So I came in and I read for Pullo. And they’re like, ‘Okay.’ Then a week goes by, and they call and they say, ‘We really love you, but maybe can you come in and read for Marc Antony?’”

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So it continued until McKidd begged to get a screen test for Vorenus. It even took so long he initially considered turning the series down in favor of indie projects he was already committing to. That was at least a thought he had on the set of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) until word got around at the pub to co-star Liam Neeson.

“I came down to the bar and Liam was pointing his finger at me and he was like, ‘You, I need to have a word with you outside,’” McKidd says. “And I was like, ‘Ah shit.’” Out in a snow-covered Spanish countryside, Neeson commanded, “Go to a phone booth, find a phone right now. Call your agent and hope and pray they haven’t offered that part to somebody else.”

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They had not, and soon enough McKidd was flying alongside Stevenson to the actual city of Rome.

“I remember me and Ray going to Rome in the spring… with Michael Apted, walking around this back lot at Cinecittà, and it was all just scaffolding at that time, there was no frontage. I remember Michael turned to me and Ray and said, basically, we can’t fuck this up, because it was so huge. It was so beyond anything that any of us had ever seen.”

With red paint chipping across weathered doors, and mules grazing in the squares, a Roman Forum unlike any other came alive in the same space where Martin Scorsese just filmed Gangs of New York. The sense of size and scale was overwhelming, as was the pressure on Stevenson and McKidd to anchor it. Fifteen years later, McKidd is candid about how that tension shaped each man and, in the actor’s mind, the series.

During the last day of production on the first season, after shooting had wrapped and festivities began, McKidd and Stevenson found themselves sharing a quiet set of stairs leading up to their Roman senate. Between them was a bottle of tequila. Off in the distance, the faint sound of wrap party debauchery was rising to a muffled roar, yet the central stars of Rome were keeping their own company and having a long overdue conversation.

“I don’t think Ray would be mad at me for telling this story because we’re still close friends and I love him dearly,” McKidd says with a measured tone. “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.”

Yet as McKidd is quick to point out, this translated to perfect chemistry on the screen, as Pullo and Vorenus were often “at loggerheads” during the first season, which culminated with Vorenus’ life imploding on the same day as Caesar’s assassination. Meanwhile Pullo found some semblance of peace. But here in the twilight of a recreated Roman Forum, the season was getting a much needed post-script.

“The wrap party is going on somewhere, and we can hear the music,” McKidd says, “and he and I just sat out there sharing the bottle of tequila. And we had it out, you know? Because we both had been holding stuff in for the season about things that annoyed each other… We got all of it off our chest and we ended up just having a huge hug, and we threw this bottle, this [now] empty bottle of tequila, into the middle of the Forum. We made a pact with each other that from that point on we were going to be the closest of friends, and we still are.”

In many ways, it mirrored the coming dynamic between Pullo and Vorenus in season 2, which McKidd likewise recognizes.

“Our bond was unbreakable in the second season,” he says. “You see that chemistry shift and move, and morph throughout the two seasons, and it pretty much tracks Ray and my relationship.” And it would prove indispensable that second year, especially as both characters, like their actors, were forced to close ranks and face that the end was nigh.

The Cost of Doing Business Like the Romans Do

Founded in 1937 by Benito Mussolini, the international renown of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios has long superseded its less than auspicious beginnings. Celebrated as the home to a highly skilled community of filmmaking artisans, Cinecittà’s name is inseparable with legendary filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, and Sergio Leone. And it’s been the site of landmark Hollywood productions, such as Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and even the notorious Cleopatra (1963). Yet as Heller points out, no American production has been back to Cinecittà since Rome.

Says the creator, “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.” He pauses to smile and choose his next words carefully about the difference between shooting a movie and TV series in that environment.

“With a series, you’re making long-term relationships,” he continues. “It’s like a marriage. A movie is a one-night stand. You can be a bastard to everyone on a movie and you’re never going to see them again. So the result is more important than the relationships. In a TV series, the relationships are more important, in the end. It’s pointless having a successful first season of a show and then you can’t do the second season because no one will work together.”

This is not to say the only reason Rome was prematurely cancelled had to do with frustrations over the cost of doing business in Rome—McKidd also cites, for example, Rome eating up too much of HBO’s production budget from other projects in 2006. Nonetheless, reports of high-finance rigamarole even reached the cast.

Says McKidd, “I heard enough to know [about] the scaffolding. I don’t know how many tons of scaffolding was used to build that set, but I remember one of the earlier conversations was, ‘We need to buy this much scaffolding.’ And the people at Cinecittà were like, ‘You can’t buy that much scaffolding, but you can rent it from my brother.’”

Both Heller and McKidd insist there was no criminality or dishonesty about this, and it was simply the way things are done. But for the creator, word was executives high above his pay grade were disturbed by the Byzantine labyrinth of Italian politics. So much so it became contagious throughout Hollywood.

“At one stage, the Italian government issued arrest warrants or provisional arrest warrants for all the fiduciary producers of the show,” Heller recalls. “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.”

It was also just a contributing factor to Rome’s untimely cancellation, which occurred during the pre-production process of season 2—and before the series’ popularity would explode with the international DVD sales and second season launch.

Heller was so far into writing the second season that they were in prep, gearing up to film the second season premiere, when he got the call it was over. The havoc this wreaked on Rome’s remaining 10 episodes, with one of them ready to shoot, was immediate.

When the first season concluded, Gaius Julius Caesar was dead, Vorenus had lost the love of his life, and Rome was headed toward civil war. The second season was always meant to be the fallout of that war, with a study in the brief and doomed alliance of Marc Antony (James Purefoy) and young Octavian (Max Pirkis), as well as the woman between them, Octavian’s mother and Antony’s lover, Atia. All of that, plus the death of Brutus and the other conspirators, would still occur in season 2… but so would Antony’s flight to Egypt and the eventual civil war between a now adult Octavian (Simon Woods) and Antony and Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal).

“I had to reconceive the second season basically from scratch,” Heller says with lingering exasperation. “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.” Most of it had to be jettisoned, too, between Brutus’ death and Antony declaring in his will that Caesar and Cleopatra’s son is Caesar’s true heir.

Some critics and fans were disappointed with the visibly breakneck pace of the second season. Others found it an exciting retelling of that period. One of Rome’s stars seems to be in the middle.

“I think the second season was successful in some ways, but it also feels, in my mind, a little rushed,” McKidd confesses. “And I think Bruno would say that too. Just because so much story was crushed and sort of concentrated down into season 2. I love [it], but I definitely felt like it was a lot condensed in.” 

And yet, McKidd and Heller both seem to lean more toward a satisfaction with it. In fact, the producer even suggests the ending with the ascension of Octavian to imperial status (he takes the title “First Citizen”) was the perfect grace note. While it’s well known among fans the series had a five-season bible with Cleopatra and Antony’s deaths originally marking the end of season 4, and season 5 following Vorenus and Pullo going to Palestine in time for the birth of Christ, that was never Heller’s favorite part. 

“That was one of the elements that Milius was fascinated by that I had no interest in whatsoever, frankly, trying to tie it in to the birth of Christ. Because, at the time, it meant nothing. It would have to be a completely different story. Put it another way, no Romans were worried or thinking about the coming of the Messiah.”

It was a Christmas story Heller didn’t want to tell. Even so, he had some interesting ideas already in place, including a vision of the ancient Holy Lands being closer to Monty Python’s Life of Brian than Ben-Hur.

“Palestine was in ferment at the time, and messiahs were popping up all over the place,” Heller says. “Judaism, at that point, was in a moment very much like Islam at the moment, full of passion and ferment and faith, and dreams of martyrdom.”

Like much else with Rome, it feels like a fascinating opportunity left unfulfilled, but one that the creator is glad to leave unexplored.

All Roads Lead to Rome’s Legacy

Rome shined briefly but brightly on premium cable. Premiering in the fall of 2005, it was gone by spring ’07. But even shortly after its cancellation, there were some small whispers of regret because of the show’s DVD sales; whispers that continue to be heard by stars of the series. McKidd says if you asked HBO in 2020, some would likely wince again at cancelling it, as he heard they did by the time season 2 aired. But “they couldn’t go back on that, or felt they couldn’t.”

But if it burned off like a Roman candle—with fire and thunder in its wake—the show still provided a roadmap for how to produce a massive spectacle as a television series.

“I think a lot of the producers that aren’t the ones that you hear about mostly, like Frank Doelger…  were all pivotal on Rome and went directly into Game of Thrones,” McKidd says. “Frank Doelger was one of the main producers, and he very much was the guy who whipped our show into shape and we learned a lot of lessons. So yeah, I think very directly, those people went into Game of Thrones and had learned a lot about how to do this kind of level [of production.]”

Heller likewise marvels at how HBO learned from Rome’s problems with its initially more affordable and tighter fantasy epic.

“The way they divided crews up in Game of Thrones, it was clever because there was always a general staff of central command, but they had more than one general, and they didn’t lose control of the generals,” Heller says.

And just as Rome carved a path for the modern era of epic television shows, Game of Thrones has now created a space for more diverse TV epics like Netflix’s The Witcher and Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series.

“[We were] ahead of the curve in the sense that it was too early,” Heller says. “But it’s not so much the audience [changed], as it is the appetite and the ability of networks and studios to make things of that size and to promote them and to market them, and to have faith and the courage to back them up.”

This series walked so that Peak TV could run. It’s a formidable legacy, and one that proves all roads in blockbuster television really do lead back to Rome.