"Rome" is a well-executed fictional rendition of the latter period of Julius Caesar's life, from around 52BC with the surrender of Vercingetorix ("King of all the Gauls"), up to the newly proclaimed dictator's assassination at the hands of his fellow senators in 44BC. The series takes certain historical liberties. I didn't mind them in the least, but if that sort of thing bothers you...then it will bother you.
In any case, there's much more here than a history lesson or a biography of Caesar. There are multiple, interwoven storylines, based on tensions between different (groups of) characters, and it's not just the military men who drive the action: the conflict between Attia of the Julii (Caesar's niece) and Servilia of the Junii (Brutus's mother) is like subtle, bitter warfare and drives much of the rest of the plot.
Another central strand involves the comradeship and sometime friendship between two lowly soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. These two characters and their adventures (both military and domestic) provide some relief from the doings of all the senators and Patricians. Vorenus and Pullo bring a human (and often comic) scale to the proceedings.
The writing/storytelling is superb. Time after time, I enjoyed a particular line--often I was waiting for it, having remembered it from the BBC presentation. The acting is (mostly) hard to fault, as is the evocation of ancient Rome through the sets, costumes and rituals. One thing I will mention is that I preferred the pace of the BBC's opening episodes, which were apparently cut down from three episodes, much to director Michael Apted's dismay. The original cut (which is what's on these DVDs) has more political exposition. The BBC cut was faster-paced. I didn't know about this when I watched the DVDs, and I was puzzled as to why it didn't seem quite as compelling as the BBC broadcasts. It goes to show that more isn't always better (but maybe if you know nothing of the period, the extra background will be helpful).
Another weakness for some will be the lack of military spectacle: the story includes major battles such as Pharsalus and Thapsus, but all we really see are the aftermaths (exhausted generals, dead soldiers, dying elephants). Then again, would you prefer to hear Pompey explaining how he lost at Pharsalus, where the odds seemed overwhelmingly in his favour, or to try to glimpse events by watching thousands of choreographed, costumed extras? With "Rome", you get the former. If you want the latter, try the opening battle from the film "Gladiator".
Which brings me to one of the most memorable scenes: a small-scale but deadly gladiatorial contest involving two of the main characters. Some of the limb-chopping seems a bit over the top, but there's a sense of squalor as well as of heroism, completely unlike the arena scenes in Gladiator (which to be fair would have dated from much later, when the gladiatorial arts had been more fully developed).
What's fully developed in Rome is the characters: there isn't a single one that isn't deeply flawed, and therefore human. One of the reasons why that simple gladiator scene works so well is that you can engage with the characters as people, not just as heroic ciphers.
The documentary-style extras aren't much to write home about: I could take them or leave them. There are also episode commentaries, for those who really want to delve into the production.
Finally, the DVDs come in the best packaging ever. Cardboard was evidently not considered good enough for this series: it comes in a sturdy board box with bevelled edges, and is so seamless it took me a few moments to work out how it opened. There's even artwork hidden under the DVD trays, where you would expect to see nothing more than a piece of white card.
The great thing is, they paid just as much attention to the details of the production, as to the box.