Before Game of Thrones, there was Rome

The legacy of King's Landing stretches all the way back to The Eternal City


Half a decade before Game of Thrones ever hit our screens, HBO was already serving up the recipe that would make the fantasy series its biggest hit. A delicious mix of grit and glamor, seasoned with the sweet and sour sauce of sex and violence, Rome was the 2005 precursor to 2015’s hottest slice of late night entertainment. As a loyal follower of both shows, I’m happy to witness the effortless grace with which Game of Thrones has grown during its four years on cable TV, but also saddened to see Rome fading like some ancient memory. So I think it’s time for a corrective retrospective. Let us remember the glories of Rome while sinking our teeth into another new season of Game of Thrones.

In October of 2003, the BBC and HBO agreed to co-produce a grand and ambitious new drama series that would recount the tale of the birth of the Roman empire. Fitting for such an epic and complex story, the scale and budget of the production were unprecedented for HBO. Rome marked the first time that the US subscription channel shot a period drama overseas, and it featured elaborate, sumptuous sets and costumes that brought the atmosphere of the ancient city to vivid life on screen.

Like the city itself, Rome was the grandest project that HBO had ever embarked upon

Two years later, the product of those labors emerged, and it was an instant hit. Rome was unflinching in its portrayal of sex, violence, and sexual violence, and people loved it for that. Some hated it for the same reason, but none who had seen it remained indifferent for very long. Rome’s title sequence featured animated graffiti depicting a massive engorged penis, a woman exploding out of a man’s head, and a series of blood-stained battles. By the time it arrived on British screens, the show was already notorious for its stark imagery and often casual brutality. Sound familiar?

Name the most enticing aspects of Game of Thrones, and you’ll find them in Rome. Both tell grand stories of violent political turmoil through the intimate lens of personal experiences. We don’t care as much about who won this or that battle as we do when Jaime Lannister loses a hand or Lucius Vorenus liberates his daughters. Every frame of Rome is drenched in intrigue, which occasionally erupts onto the screen through acts of bloody backstabbing or equally explicit sex scenes. Much as in Game of Thrones, being the most influential or powerful character is no guarantee of surviving until the next episode, let alone the next season. In fact, power and misery seem to be inextricably bonded in both shows.

As much as Game of Thrones may be ahistoric and subject to its own internal lore and structure, its inspirations are clearly drawn from the same bloody pool of human history as Rome’s. Daenerys Targaryen, the young queen threatening the seat of Westeros power from beyond the seas, finds her parallel in Egypt’s Cleopatra. Joffrey Baratheon is as cold and unsympathizing a ruler as Rome’s brutally calculating Gaius Octavian. And the strong female figures of Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister find their Roman counterparts in Atia of the Julii and Servilia of the Junii. Come on, it’s cool to even just say those names.

Because it was so lavish and uncompromising in its production, Rome managed to assemble a brilliant ensemble cast — including Layer Cake’s Kenneth Cranham and Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd — and did those actors justice with great writing. Awards and critical acclaim affirmed this, but there’s even more obvious evidence of the skill and talent deployed when shooting Rome: many of that show’s producers are now working on Game of Thrones, and some of its leading actors have joined them too.

Ciarán Hinds, the Gaius Julius Caesar of Rome, now performs the pivotal role of Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones. Indira Varma, the actress that once portrayed the wife of Lucius Vorenus, turned into the paramour of the vengeful Prince Martell in last season's Thrones. More importantly, Rome showed HBO was capable of wrangling huge casts and weaving together sprawling and complex storylines to create one compelling whole. There was just one issue: it couldn’t stay within budget.

As Rome creator Bruno Heller told EW last year, "they learned a lot from a business commercial sense, what not to do. The mistakes we made are the mistakes Game of Thrones learned from." Rome ultimately proved prohibitively expensive to make, which led to its untimely demise after just two seasons. If there’s a subtle implication in Heller’s words that Thrones is merely a better-budgeted continuation of Rome with a different narrative, it’s rendered explicit by the words of Kevin McKidd, who played the leading role of Roman legionary Lucius Vorenus. "They stole our fucking show," is McKidd’s candid assessment of Game of Thrones, which is a perspective that fellow Rome star James Purefoy says he sympathizes with.

And yet, for all their shared characteristics and overlaps, Rome and Game of Thrones are not the same thing. Amanda Farrish over on This Was TV makes the cogent argument that Game of Thrones has the advantage of unpredictability. Many more people are familiar with the broad strokes of Roman history than have read George R. R. Martin’s books, which allows Thrones to serve up more profound storyline twists that completely subvert viewers’ expectations.

In Rome, you know Caesar won’t choke to death on some random grape seed, and you have a rough idea of who’ll be in power when. There’s great joy to be had in retelling historic events, but not as much surprise. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, has left many of its viewers in a tailspin after getting them to invest emotionally into the development of a character, only to see him or her scythed down with little ceremony. The disposable treatment of central actors and influencers of the story is unique to Thrones — at least as far as major TV dramas go — and it serves to extend the realistic and nuanced portrayal of the people populating Martin’s fantasy realm.

"This exciting series will result in memorable entertainment," said HBO’s boss in 2003, Chris Albrecht. It’s "a story of timeless passions with contemporary resonance." He was talking about Rome, and he was right — as committed fans of the two-season series will attest — but the truest embodiment of his words now comes from Game of Thrones. It righted whatever wrongs were ailing Rome’s production, added the extra spice of fire-breathing dragons and unpredictability, and continues to set the standard for epic TV drama today.

Without Rome, I’m sure we wouldn’t have the epic and ambitious Game of Thrones that we’re enjoying today. The funny thing is that with Rome, we wouldn’t have the present Thrones, either, given the way that show burned through HBO’s finances. So Rome had to both rise and fall, as a TV production, in order for Game of Thrones to become what it is today. And I appreciate that. I guess what I’m really saying is, go watch the Game of Thrones that came before Game of Thrones. You won’t be disappointed.

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