Rome mixes Upstairs, Downstairs with Forrest Gump, I, Claudius and all films ever produced with fighting Roman soldiers. We see the lives of the illustrious – Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian (the future Augustus), and Cicero – their actions frame the story for us viewers. But we experience much of Rome through two lower-class men: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Their lives are affected by those above them – but they, like Forrest Gump, also impact the events of history.
Second Spear Centurion Lucius Vorenus follows what he believes to be the rules, while lower-ranked legionary Titus Pullo, does not – sometimes it’s not clear that Pullo even knows the rules. Vorenus’ first words in the series – the first words of any character – are orders to Pullo to keep in formation. But the drunken Pullo doesn’t obey, and instead punches his commanding officer in the head.
The ranks falling apart is a harbinger of the series, as the old order – which depended on everyone accepting their role – disintegrates into chaos. Vorenus orders Pullo whipped, a punishment that should have killed him – but as the story needs Pullo alive, after the flogging he’s placed in a makeshift wooden cage."The Stolen Eagle" then moves ‘upstairs’, showing the surrender of the King of the Gauls to Julius Caesar, followed by the arrival of a letter announcing the death of Pompey the Great’s young wife, Julia, who was also Caesar’s beloved daughter. The marriage, by historical accounts a love match, was what maintained the bond between these two extremely ambitious men. With Julia's death their alliance breaks apart.
Julius Caesar attempts to mend the breach by proposing Pompey marry another of his female relatives. This sends the story to Rome and to Atia of the Julii (a niece of Julius Caesar) who is calculating, always, how to improve her family’s position. Atia orders her daughter Octavia to divorce her husband to free her for Pompey, which upsets Octavia and may seem heartless. But Atia cannot afford our modern morality or sentiments. Kudos to Polly Walker for her portrayal of Atia, who saves her character from caricature by bringing a mother’s affection and a certain vulnerability to the role.
We glimpse the Senate as well, with Pompey, Cato, and Cicero making speeches. Cicero is especially silver-tongued, stealing several minutes from Pompey so that he can orate himself.
Atia sends her young son Octavian to Gaul, with a magnificent horse as a present to Caesar. Pompey also sends men on a mission to Gaul. In the meantime, Julius Caesar’s personal standard – a golden eagle – is stolen. Caesar tells another visitor, Brutus, that because of this he’s at his wits’ end and that the morale of the men is low, even dangerous. Brutus accurately observes that the soldiers don’t seem mutinous. Caesar, however, persuades Brutus otherwise, in order to appear weaker than he really is.
Caesar wants to give the impression that he’s genuinely worried about the stolen eagle, so he arranges (via Mark Antony) for Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo to retrieve it. Pullo, confident they’ll succeed, greatly relieved to be spared execution, is happy to go. The dour Vorenus is less hopeful, as the quest is likely to end in failure or death, and only selected Pullo to accompany him as Pullo was already slated for death. With these attitudes, at first the men bicker, and Pullo considers killing Vorenus and running off. They are beset by difficulties – even their horses are stolen. Then, miraculously, they succeed – and beyond their wildest dreams, because they retrieve not just the eagle, but acquire fresh horses and rescue Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian. This elevates our two lower-class protagonists, making them worthy of the attention of the powerful and well-connected.
Importantly, they establish that the eagle was stolen by Pompey. The fissure between Pompey and Julius Caesar widens into a chasm, especially as at the end we see that Pompey has married again - not to Octavia, but to a woman in the faction opposing Julius Caesar.
Bits and pieces:
I love the music. I also love the opening credits, combining mosaics, wall paintings and the crude, animated graffiti.The settings and sets are fantastic. Expensive, too, which is why Rome has only two seasons instead of the five originally planned.
Speaking of expenses, observe how Julius Caesar gives Mark Antony a half talent of gold to cover expenses in retrieving the stolen eagle – and how that amount shrinks to a quarter by the time it reaches Lucius Vorenus, who has to do the actual work!
Naked body count: Vercingetorix, King of the Gauls, being stripped as he admits defeat; Atia of the Julii and Timon making love; Atia again coming out her bath; naked woman on stage; Octavia in preparation for making love with Pompey.
The Battle of Alesia – we see its finish – was one of Julius Caesar’s most famous conquests. You can visit the battleground today, with museum and reenactments, located in Burgundy, France.
The episode’s title, “The Stolen Eagle,” refers to the theft of Julius Caesar’s personal standard. But the eagle can also be seen as a metaphor for Rome. It’s supposed to belong to the people, but Pompey and Caesar are trying to steal it – as they, and others, will continue doing for the rest of the series.
Love the blue tattoo on the shaved head of one of Pompey’s slaves, identifying him as Pompey’s property.
Ciarán Hinds does not much resemble the Julius Caesar from statues or descriptions. But he sure has the gravitas!
The newsreader in the Forum is a marvelous touch. Notice, too, his hand gestures.
Julius Caesar: Pompey will be needing a new wife.
Atia: I’ve always found something perversely erotic about goaty little men.
Cato (speaking of Julius Caesar): I’ll tell you why he does these things: he wants to buy himself a crown. He wants to destroy the Republic and rule Rome as a bloody tyrant.
Pompey: It is the people that rule, not you fine noblemen.
Cicero (aside): It is Pompey’s soldiers that rule, not we fine noblemen.
Pompey: You ask me to openly betray a friend. I cannot do it. (Meanwhile plotting to betray that friend secretly)
Lucius Vorenus: We are hunting a black dog in the night.
Titus Pullo: Look here, Mars! Look here! I am Titus Pullo, these bloody men my gift to you.
Octavian: I’m no slave. I’m Gaius Octavian of the Julii, great-nephew of Julius Caesar… and I order you to cut these ropes.
Titus Pullo (grinning): Say please.
Julius Caesar (of Pompey): He has the cunning of a sardine, poor fool.
Overall rating: The beginning of a series has a big job: introducing characters, jump-starting the plot, and in Rome, working in historical details. I think that a first-time viewer could get bogged with information overload. Sometimes the execution’s a little clumsy; we’re told repeatedly that Caesar was luring Pompey into war – first the manipulation of Brutus by Caesar, then Octavian’s explanation to Pullo and Vorenus, and finally explicitly by Julius Caesar himself. I especially disliked Octavian's bit: he's supposed to be bright and canny but how could he have the information needed to reach his conclusions? Still, the episode achieves a lot and I think offers even more for repeat viewers.
Three out of four spears.
Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology and Jane Austen, and appreciates fine story-telling in many forms.