August 11, 2014 5:58 PM EDT

Where would we be without the Romans’ contributions to civilization? The Latin alphabet! The aqueduct! And, of course, the respectable public-TV orgy! This seamily intellectual 1976 miniseries about Rome’s stuttering-but-savvy fourth emperor established what would become HBO’s modus operandi, and not just because it tread similar ground to Rome or because it happened to involve a certain conniving mother named Livia. It proved that the lofty and the sordid were not mutually exclusive, by offering a politically acute version of history that also showed us what happened when the togas came off.

Get This TV Series

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME
You May Also Like