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Great Caesar's ghost!

HBO's "Rome" returns with a vengeance

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HBO's "Rome," a lurid, learned depiction of Julius Caesar and his family, traces its lineage to another proud but bloodthirsty Italian household. Tony Soprano's scheming mother, Livia, shares the name of the wife of Rome's first emperor, Augustus Caesar, and was an even more deadly, manipulative matriarch.

The original Livia served as the primary villain of the classic "I, Claudius" miniseries but has yet to turn up on the HBO show. She's scarcely missed, though, given the show's dark pantheon of senators, seducers and murderous power-players. The series piles on guilty pleasures as well as rich historical details, offering an intoxicating immersion into the life of Rome about two millennia ago, as well as kinky sex scenes and occasional convulsions of shocking violence. Season One featured a gladiator sequence that was one of the most charged, grisly action scenes I've ever seen.

What's not to like? "Rome" makes a worthy addition to HBO's stellar lineup of dramas, but seems to be perceived as an expensive disappointment, being neither a ratings bonanza nor a buzz generator. Its second season, debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, will be its last and features 10 episodes -- down from 12 in the previous season.

The machinations of Caesar's rivals, relatives and would-be successors can be dense and complicated, but "Rome" benefits from an engaging narrative hook associated with Forrest Gump, but probably as old as the events chronicled on the show. We see turning points in Roman history through the eyes of two "street-level" fictional characters: tightly wound Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and earthy Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). They meet as bickering, mismatched soldiers in the army of Julius Caesar (magisterial Ciarán Hinds) but become unlikely friends as they -- and the nation -- undergo drastic reversals of fortune. Stevenson in particular gives one of the great, unsung performances on television, making Pullo at once scary-tough yet emotionally transparent.

Via Vorenus and Pullo, "Rome's" first season followed Julius Caesar from the conquest of the Gauls to his assassination on the floor of the Roman Senate. Season Two takes up almost literally where the last one left off, with Caesar's body still warm and chaos heating up in the city. "Rome" frequently presents an "upstairs/downstairs" perspective of Roman life, contrasting the lives of the aristocracy and the commoners, and the season premiere finds a contrast between the mourning (and exultation) following Caesar's murder and Vorenus' insane grief following the death of his wife.

The series doesn't shy away from capturing Roman rituals and folkways that seem bizarre today, such as the wet nurse who puts one of her nipples to the lips of Caesar's corpse as part of the funeral preparation. "Rome" frequently treats exotic details in a matter-of-fact way. When Vorenus laments the fact that he literally cursed his children out of rage and despair, Pullo suggests it wasn't binding because he didn't sacrifice an animal afterward: "Well, there you go, then."

At times, "Rome's" vision of city life can be amusingly familiar. The opening credits feature animated graffiti moving across walls, suggesting its attention to the gossipy, gutter-level perspective of history. The town crier (Ian McNeice as a scene-stealing recurring character) bellows the news of the day and at times recommends local merchants, like a TV anchor pausing for a commercial message. Overall, the richness of "Rome's" city life feels of a piece with HBO's other civic portraits, such as "The Wire's" impoverished Baltimore and "Deadwood's" lawless mining town.

Season Two will overlap with parts of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, but refuses to offer dusty portraits of Rome's movers and shakers. James Purefoy plays Mark Antony not as the noble orator from the play but as a charismatic, self-serving jerk primarily loyal to his own appetites. Polly Walker zestfully matches him as Atia, Caesar's niece and what you'd call the grand bitch/Joan Collins role.

Admittedly unrestrained, "Rome" does justice to the forces that shape the major events of antiquity, from political pressures to family squabbles to dumb luck. At times the show goes to extremes, and the season premiere features a grisly plot twist that feels arbitrary and contrived. But you expect a show about such a place and personalities to ignore inhibitions. And Livia hasn't even shown up yet.

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