ABC TRIES THE SWORD AND SANDAL ROUTE: Rome wasn’t built in a day, but ABC will be looking to the Roman Empire as a stepping stone out of the ratings cellar. The network is fast mobilizing “Taranus,” a series that will chronicle the power struggle following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.

After mulling the concept for some time, ABC’s Susan Lyne and Lloyd Braun are readying “Taranus” to shoot in Rome in January as an eight-episode “limited series” they hope will lead to a longer run. The Roman epic is being exec produced by the “Chicago” team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, creator Thomas Wheeler and Chip Johannessen.

The “limited series” designation will justify the construction of period sets and soundstages, with network brass hoping that a quick audience embrace will lead to a second season arc of 13 episodes or more. While ABC and Touchstone haven’t issued an official thumbs up, they hired series vet Johannessen to run the show, empowered line producers to secure soundstages in Rome and set episode delivery dates for the fall 2004-2005 season.

Wheeler is ready for an extended run. He has written a bible for three seasons that cover Caesar’s succession all the way up to Marc Antony’s steamy alliance with Cleopatra. The major protagonist is Julius Caesar’s 17-year old nephew, Octavius, who’s unexpectedly named in Caesar’s will as Rome’s next leader. Caesar’s murderers target Octavius, who flees with the help of gladiator slave/Caesar confidante Taranus, whose job is not only to protect the youth, but make a man and leader out of him.

Braun sparked to a Roman series after seeing “Gladiator,” the film that made possible a bunch of period epics, capped by dueling Alexander the Great pics. Wheeler combed the history books for Octavius, and then invented the gladiator.

“The fact part is Caesar dropping his fortune and rule on an unsuspecting 17-year-old, who becomes this King Arthur or Henry V character, who must summon the courage to rule,” Wheeler said. “Rome was plunged into civil war, and he was opposed by the Senate and Marc Antony’s 500,000 troops. Within one year, Octavius managed to put together an army from scratch, invade Rome and drive Marc Antony across the mountains.

“This is meant to be a defining show for ABC,,” Wheeler said. “We’ve been given a creative mandate to be broad, with the sweep of movies like ‘Excalibur’ or ‘Lord of the Rings,’ and the contained story arcs of ‘The Sopranos.’”

A NEW CLIMB: Commercial production house @Radical.Media is ramping up in features, and partners Jon Kamen and Frank Scherma have hired Michael Davis to head production. He rises to that challenge after an exhilarating two-year showbiz hiatus in which he scaled six of the seven highest summits in the world. Davis was a CAA agent who repped the likes of Mike Myers, Jewel and Rachel Weisz when he ankled to climb mountains. He returns needing to scale Mount Everest to complete the seven summits. “I’d done everything I wanted to as an agent, and even though my friends thought I was nuts, I wanted to try something new,” Davis said. “I was never Mr. athlete, but I was lucky enough to get up each mountain on my first attempt.” Climbing is a brutal and often fatal pursuit. Davis watched as frozen bodies were brought down one mountain, and the air was always cold and thin, no matter the continent. “When I got to the top of Aconcagua in South America, I was up 22,840 feet, it was 40 degrees below zero,” he said. “When you’re on the summit ridge, it’s eight breaths to one step. You reach the top, you look over and head down. There is no air pressure above you to force the air in front of you to go into your lungs. You’re left exhausted and freezing. But I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” One reason Davis came back before scaling Everest was it costs $70,000 for the three-month trip and he’d exhausted his funds. He’ll attempt the climb, but for now is concentrating on pairing with Gotham-based Radical exec Jack Lechner to put together a film slate that will be populated by Radical’s stable of commercial directors.

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