Starring Samuel Barnett (Netflix’s Dirk Gently), the pilot episode of Cicero was a surprise hit last year. Returning for a further five episodes, as part of the Big Finish Originals range, all six now form a first series.
Set in ancient Rome, lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero comes to prominence with his successful defence of a young man, Sextus Roscius, accused of murdering his father. While the case brings him fame, it also ruffles some feathers as those who appear to be responsible are allies to the Consul Sulla.
As a follow-up, Cicero targets a corrupt senator, Claudius (Ben Arogundade), whose financial compensation with respect to a cargo of slaves lost at sea is called into question. This storyline then plays out across the series, bringing unprecedented levels of danger into the lives of the Cicero family as the violent and dangerous Claudius is also well connected; recently divorced, with his ex-wife soon to be evicted from Rome, he has married the niece of Sulla.
If his professional endeavours were not enough to handle, writer David Llewellyn explores Roman society and Cicero’s complicated personal life too; the prospect of an arranged married fills him with trepidation, and before he has a chance to settle into married life, an old friend returns bringing added complications.
As a pair, Samuel Barnett and George Naylor, who plays younger brother Quintus, are terrific. We feel a genuine affection between them, along with some sibling rivalry, and some of our favourite scenes are when Marcus hones his speeches and Quintus critiques them. Joining the family, Laura Riseborough is well placed as Terentia, who convinces as the bright and supportive young bride, able to hold her own in Roman society.
The Cicero brothers are not the only sibling dynamic at work, as we hear another with Terentia and her sister Fabia (Katherine Pearce), a seemingly formidable vestal virgin who becomes the object of Quintus’s drunken affections, with terrible consequences. Later on, we meet a further pair too, in Atticus (Merlin‘s Rupert Young) who enjoys a combative relationship with his spirited sister Pomponia (Sarah Ovens), as well as designs on allying his family with Cicero’s by marriage.
With its insights into the plight of slaves and the fragile, yet powerful position of Roman women, we see that Cicero’s world is a complex place. Cicero himself is fascinating too; likeable for the most part, yet clearly ambitious and with a streak of vanity. Despite railing against corruption, he is not above using his knowledge as a weapon. The stories also highlight, in a subtle way, his double standards on slavery; Cicero seems less worried about the loss of life, unlike his brother, as the leverage it can provide him in his case.
As well as the moral complexities and drama, Llewellyn finds the opportunity for great humour in these stories too. One highlight is the delightfully awkward “birds and bees” conversation between Cicero and his mother before the wedding.
In varied a guest cast, Paul Clayton (Torchwood: Aliens Among Us) has a terrific presence as the lurking background threat of Sulla, and his eventual confrontation with Cicero is electric. Wilf Scolding (Game Of Thrones) also impressive as the charismatic Piso, the old flame who disrupts Cicero’s nascent marital harmony.
Aided by subtle sound design from Neil Gardner and Rob Harvey, the script breathes life into these historical characters and Scott Handcock’s production as fresh and vital as anything else on the Big Finish slate. With Cicero’s destiny foretold in the final episode, and a brave choice made, we can only hope there are plans to push further into his fascinating life.