Rome: An Owl in a Thornbush

“Caesar has crossed the Rubicon. He’s on Italian soil under arms. It’s an act of gross treason. With a single legion, if you please – so not merely treason, but suicidal treason.”

This episode is full of tension, as Julius Caesar marches with his single legion on Rome. It opens with Caesar's niece Atia whipping her slave Castor to vent her frustration, because she assumes that Caesar cannot possibly take Rome, and that she and her children will suffer as a result. Pompey can’t comprehend what Caesar is doing and is preparing his legions with the expectation of crushing his old friend. Even Caesar and Mark Antony have doubts – but they march anyway.

I’m reminded of other examples of overconfidence during history, such as Singapore and the Maginot Line during World War II. And also of the Latin proverb, “Fortune favors the bold,” for those who take risks are often rewarded in this episode.

To make sure that our heroes are well-positioned for exploring the story, Vorenus and Pullo are sent ahead as part of the scouting force. En route, in an entertaining exchange, Vorenus asks Pullo for marital advice. During the journey they encounter practically no resistance; a charge causes Pompey’s young untrained legions to scatter.

Realizing their defenses are either green recruits or Caesar loyalists – Pompey and the other nobles decide to leave Rome. This may have been the prudent decision, but Rome was depending on them; they fail to live up to their responsibilities. In their haste they fail to adequately secure the treasury, which is stolen by one set of thieves. These thieves are attacked by Pullo and Vorenus but our heroes don’t stop to look at what it carries (although Pullo wants to) or to release a slave girl tied to the cart.

Atia defiantly gives a party, during which some of Pompey’s supporters threaten them from the outside. But then the supporter depart along with Pompey’s other men, leaving Atia and her allies in an unexpectedly good position. Brutus then faces a dilemma: should he remain in Rome (he is a friend of Caesar’s) or join Pompey? He has to weigh loyalty to a friend against his position in the Republic. Brutus departs but his mother, Servilia (and the lover of Julius Caesar) stays.

In a touching set of scenes, we see both Niobe and Lucius Vorenus praying for their relationship. They reconcile – but Niobe can’t quite bring herself to confess that the baby is her son. Niobe, like Brutus, faces terrible choices. If she confesses, she risks all then and there – but given Vorenus’ forgiving attitude at the time, she and the children might survive.

Pullo goes back to rescue the slave girl attached to the cart and then finds Rome’s gold. Sometimes good deeds are rewarded. The episode ends with Pullo hiding the treasure as Caesar and Mark Antony appear over the hills.

Title musings: I needed time to understand the title of this episode. The episode makes only one reference to an owl (when Atia offers to sacrifice an owl for someone’s health) and never mentions thornbushes. As writers usually choose titles with care, some meaning had to be behind this one. I considered plays on the proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” but could not see how any applied. However, a little research turned up a relevant biblical reference to the thornbush.

In Judges 9:7-15, the trees decide they want a king. They first ask the olive tree to serve, but the olive tree is busy creating oil. The fig tree refuses, because it has fruit to make, as does the grapevine. Finally they turn to the thornbush, which accepts, saying: ‘If you really want to anoint me king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

This passage from Judges is certainly the reason for the title. The last lines are just like the proclamations given by Julius Caesar. And the refusal of Pompey and other nobles to accept their responsibility and defend Rome – they leave, as Cato says, without unsheathing their swords, with only a feeble attempt to secure the treasury – means they are not worthy. Like the cedars of Lebanon, the pillars of Roman society will fall.

And what is the significance of the owl? Today we associate the owl with wisdom, through the goddess of wisdom, Athena/Minerva in the Greco-Roman pantheons. Note that Minerva was also a goddess of war, but one considered much more orderly than Mars. The 19th century German philosopher Hegel wrote: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." As Caesar marches on Rome we are witnessing the dusk of the Roman republic, which is falling.

Perhaps these references are obscure – at least they were to me, which shows that I’m not as educated as I’d like to be! – but the interpretation seems to fit. If you have other ideas, please post them in the comments.

Bits and pieces

Atria were the central courtyards in rich roman houses, open to the sky and with pools for collecting rainwater (water was always an issue in Rome). We see a burning torch thrown into Atia’s atrium, which is a nice use of the period architecture.

Naked body count: Only Octavia and her ex-husband Glabius.

Like how when prayers are offered at shrines, petitioners identify themselves thoroughly. Perhaps gods were not omniscient and you had to make sure that they answered the right prayer for the right petitioner.

Lucius Vorenus shows himself to completely clueless about women, so perhaps I was too harsh in the last review when I complained how he failed to notice that his wife was lactating.

Quotes

Mark Antony: He (Vorenus) thinks we’ve committed a terrible crime, a mighty sacrilege, and shall be severely punished by the Gods.
Julius Caesar: He may be right.
Mark Antony: It’s a crime if we lose. If we win, it isn’t.

Mark Antony: He’d follow the eagle up Pluto’s ass.

Atia: Horseshit suits you much better.

Pompey (complaining of Caesar’s speed): It is all highly irregular – unethical even. Gods, it is not even the war season!

Cato: So, in fact, this is not a humiliating defeat at all, but a rare species of victory! … You have lost Rome without unsheathing your sword – you have lost Rome!

Pullo: Tell her that she’s beautiful every time you see her – even when she’s not.

Atia: And then you must kill yourself. Your survival would be inappropriate.

Brutus: The Republic is more important than any friendship.

Brutus: You will be the mistress of a dead tyrant and we know what happens to them.

Thief: Fortune spreads her legs for you, then!

Overall rating

The story is rich, with conflicting loyalties, and especially relevant today, as many of leaders shirk their responsibilities and as large percentages of populations seem to prefer dictators. The episode also brings up the issue of decisions in difficult times, when all choices are risky. Fortune seems to favor the bold, and certainly rewarded Caesar – but the thieves, who likewise made a bold decision when the opportunity presented itself, did not survive. We are biased in that we remember the successful risk-takers, and not the failures, but graveyards are full of failures. At any rate, I was intensely engaged nearly the entire episode, with the exception of when those at Atia’s party were attempting to decide who would kill whom. The episode also had a small naked body count. Perhaps I am less engaged by this – or perhaps the episode was so good that it did not need to fall back on gratuitous nudity. Three and a half spears out of four.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology and Jane Austen, and appreciates fine story-telling in many forms.

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