Rome: Utica

“Happy day – on which the Julian sun has risen, and banished Pompeian night forever.”

This episode begins with the defeat of the last of Pompey’s allies at Utica. Cato no longer wants to go on living, and after they find refuge in the city – full of dust and dirt – Cato takes his life. Scipio emulates him, and the news of their deaths soon reaches Rome. Their deaths are mocked in a vulgar manner on a stage, which upsets Pompey’s sympathizers, such as Brutus.

When you’ve lost everything, what do you do? Suicide is the choice of Cato and Scipio. The Romans had an attitude: when facing complete surrender, you could avoid becoming a slave by taking your own life. Brutus did not kill himself, and because of this he feels deeply ashamed, as if he were a slave.

I have not discussed slavery much in reviews of previous episodes, though I have posted some slave-relevant quotes. Slaves were an integral part of life in Rome. A few were respected or given serious responsibility, such as Caesar’s slave Posca, but most had desperately wretched lives, such as the fellow who was so hungry that he stole some bread from the patricians’ table in Utica. I’m no expert on slavery, but from the little I know, Rome gets a lot of it right. Eirene doesn’t like being a slave either when Pullo finally has sex with her (he had put it off so long she must have thought she was going to escape this chore).

With the victory at Utica, Caesar’s firmly in charge now, and that affects everyone. For some the changes are positive: as being a male of the Julii is no longer dangerous, Octavian can come back to Rome. The soldiers return too. There’s a lovely segue to Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo coming home. Vorenus greets Niobe – and Pullo feels lonely as he has no one.

Atia holds a party to celebrate her son’s return. Brutus and Servilia are invited, and Brutus shows himself to be a tortured soul, goaded by the rejected, resentful Servilia (Tobias Menzies keeps proving that he is an excellent actor). At Atia’s party, Caesar asks Octavian how he would put the Republic to rights. Octavian gives useful suggestions, including public works and creating new senators definitely loyal to Caesar.

Vorenus and Pullo, now bored civilians, help Niobe and her sister at the butcher shop. Vorenus has a run-in with a man of Erastes. Erastes threatens Vorenus – Vorenus and Niobe expect to be killed because Vorenus will not apologize – but when Erastes and his men come to slaughter Vorenus and his family, they discover that Caesar arrived before them in order to invite Vorenus to stand for office as a magistrate. I liked this twist.

Servilia gets Octavia to do her bidding to find out what Octavian knows. She learns about the affair of Niobe had while Vorenus was away and that Caesar has an affliction. I find this plot thread most improbable, that Octavia would be so stupid to do as she does, and actually painful to watch. How on earth could Servilia have such a hold over her? Octavia knows it is wrong but she still does it, as if she has no will of her own. Of course, there are such people, as the Milgram experiments show, but Octavia has time to reflect before she acts. Given what happened, Atia is rightly furious and she organizes an attack on Servilia, which is how the episode ends.

Title musings. The last few episodes have all had single-word titles. Utica is when Caesar’s enemies (from this round) were completely defeated. What is interesting is that the suicides of Cato and Scipio inspire Brutus and others more than the death of Pompey. Other than that, I can see no deep meaning to this title.

Bits and pieces

Despite the exchange between Cato and Scipio, elephants can get up again. Of course, a dying elephant is an apt metaphor for a dying republic.

Nice to have an episode in which Vorenus and Niobe are happy together.

No Calpurnia in this episode. Perhaps she’s down in Pompeii, visiting her father’s estate (one of the most luxurious and best-preserved villas in Pompeii belonged to her father, although of course it was not buried by the volcano until 79 AD).

Vorenus has been gone two years but his daughters have barely changed. Amazingly the actor who played Octavian did seem to age two years during the episodes in which he was missing.

Naked body count: Titus Pullo, being washed in the courtyard, Eirene. Octavia and Octavian’s copulation is not shown, out of respect for the actor’s young age.

Like how Niobe, when they expect to be killed, bought the better bread.

A relationship not mentioned in the series: Cato was the younger half-brother of Servilia and hence the half-uncle of Brutus.

Quotes

Scipio: Where there’s life there’s hope.
Cato: If we’ve done anything, old friend, we’ve disproved that proverb.

Brutus: I cannot ask mercy of Caesar, accept rank and favor from him, and then refuse his friendship.

Servilia: What sort of man asks for mercy in the first place?

Erastes: So back from the wars. Civilian life, eh? Must be hard to adjust. Different rules. Different fucking rules!

Caesar: I am not tyrant. I have legally taken Dictator's powers. I will return those powers to the people and senate as soon as I am able. No man loves our Republic more than I. I will not rest until it is as it was in the golden age."

Octavian: You’re a virtuous woman, so you must know that seducing your own brother is wrong.

Octavia: What have I done? Oh, what have I done?
Octavian: What have you done? Tell me. (Despite my general dislike of this plot twist, I liked this bit of dialogue, especially Max Pirkis’s delivery.)

Overall rating

The idea of Octavia seducing her brother does not work. Future generations of Caesars indulge in incest, but this relationship never happened. On the other hand, it does seem to alert Octavia to her duty toward her family, and it gives Atia a reason to attack Servilia and to continue the feud between the Julii and the Junii. The rest of the episode was solid, especially the acting of Tobias Menzies. Two spears out of four.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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