Your next box set: Rome

James Anthony: Based on tales written by history's greatest winners, Rome was never short of bloodthirsty, passionate source material

HBO and the BBC planned no fewer than five seasons of Rome, which set out to chronicle the fall of the republic and the birth of the empire. But, thanks to its sumptuous scope, decadent expanse and crippling cost, they were forced to abandon the swords-and-sandals epic after two seasons, despite its many awards and handsome ratings.

Borrowing from bloodthirsty, passionate tales written by history's greatest winners, Rome was never short of source material. The drama is not without its moments of soapy filler, though, and the political machinations can be impenetrable - but you may welcome these more prosaic moments given that, before the first season has even ended, you will have been catapulted through a story of war, torture, prostitution, incest, self-mutilation and ritual suicide.

The exploits of plebeian soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo - played respectively by Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson - form the thread that holds the series together. They go from brothers in arms, to buddies, to bitter enemies and beyond. Their estrangement and reconciliation in episode 11 is emotionally exhausting - watching Vorenus agonising with himself as he decides Pullo's fate confirms McKidd as an acting powerhouse. Yet Stevenson's is the more nuanced performance (despite vocally lapsing into his native Geordie occasionally).

Polly Walker's Atia of the Julii, niece of Julius Caesar and arch manipulator, is by turns hateful and charming, while Lyndsey Marshal gives a haunting turn as opium-addicted Cleopatra. "Die screaming, you pigspawn trollop," Atia whispers to Cleopatra as the latter leaves a party for the Egyptians.

The box set's gem is its All Roads Lead to Rome feature. An interactive pop-up runs alongside the action, offering snippets from historical consultant Jonathan Stamp. Want to know the grisly effect of 30 lashes with a scourge whip? Or how to divine the future from goat's entrails? This is Horrible Histories for grownups.


James Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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