Unlike another certain celebrated HBO series, Rome's end will satisfy those swept up in its lavishly mounted spectacle and invested in the human dramas of the historical figures and fictional characters. Series 2 begins in the wake of Julius Caesar's assassination, and charts the power struggle to fill his sandals between "vulgar beast" Mark Antony (James Purefoy) and "clever boy" Octavian (Simon Woods), who is surprisingly named Caesar's sole heir. The series' most compelling relationship is between fellow soldiers and unlikely friends, the honorable Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus "Violence is the only trade I know" Pullo (Ray Stevenson), who somewhat reverse roles when Vorenus is overcome with grief in the wake of his wife's suicide. Series 2 considerably ups the ante in the rivalry between Atia (an Emmy-worthy Polly Walker), who is Antony's mistress, and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) with attempted poisonings and sickening torture. Another gripping sub plot is Vorenus's estrangement from his children, who, at the climax of the season opener are presumed slaughtered, but whose true fate may be even more devastating to the father who cursed them.
Rome's second season does not scrimp on the series' sex and violence, in both cases exceedingly brutal. But in this cauldron of treachery and betrayal, words, too, are vicious, as when a defiant Atia ominously tells Octavian's new wife, Livia, "Far better women that you have sworn to [destroy me]. Go look for them now." In writing Rome's epitaph, we come to praise this series, not to bury it. Although two seasons was not enough to establish a Rome empire, it stands as one of HBO's crowning achievements. --Donald Liebenson