Rome: Passover

“It is the will of a dictator of the Roman Republic.”

The episode opens with a visual – Julius Caesar’s corpse – of the great event on which so much of history turns. Posca grieves; Mark Antony runs for his life; Brutus washes his hands, horrified by what he has done.

We then see Vorenus weeping over his wife’s body. When his children and sister-in-law appear, he lashes out at them and even curses them. The reaction of the children is the weakest point in the episode, with rather poor acting (but we have kids here and some didn’t speak English). Vorenus wanders around as if in a nightmare, as people shout that Caesar is dead. Eventually he is knocked unconscious and robbed by a blind man, which shows what bad shape he’s in.

Posca brings back Caesar’s body, trundling it on a cart that he pulls himself. His exertions remind us how much had to be accomplished by the muscles of people and animals.

During the crisis, Octavian keeps his head (as he did in history). He takes charge, summoning help via Timon. Mark Antony, who has been running from Quintus Pompey and thugs, assumes that he’s in charge. He decides to go north to gather armies but that they first must stop to fetch Calpurnia.

Calpurnia functions better as Caesar’s widow than she did as Caesar’s wife (the only real character she showed before was when she threatened him with divorce). She refuses to leave Rome and insists that Caesar’s will be read aloud. This leads to a startling revelation: Gaius Octavian is Caesar’s heir and posthumously adopted son. As Octavian realizes what is potentially at stake, he decides to remain in Rome, and convinces Atia and Antony to remain as well. Fortune favors the bold!

All this time, Pullo has been blissfully happy in the country with his new wife, Eirene. Then news of Caesar’s death reaches them. Pullo steals a horse and returns to Rome.

Lyde and Niobe’s children prepare Niobe’s corpse for burial – and are captured by Erastes, the local mob don with a supersized grudge against Vorenus.

The episode finally returns to conspirators. Cicero arrives to congratulate them and to ask what has been done about Mark Antony. Cicero is disappointed to learn that Antony still lives, and even more disappointed when Antony appears himself.

Pullo finds Vorenus, who has also returned home, besides Niobe’s body. Vorenus is in shock – both from the concussion given him by the blind man and by all the things that have happened.

Mark Antony arrives at the house of the Junii and in what is a brilliant scene threatens the assassins, quite successfully, but also offering a truce (note that the ideas are Octavian’s but Antony executes them). Antony goes back to the street while Cicero and the conspirators discuss the matter. Cicero appreciates the danger of letting Antony live, as does Cassius. But the vacillating, honorable Brutus cannot order Antony’s death. Brutus accepts the offer and then as soon as he goes back inside, Antony murders Quintus Pompey. The death is wonderfully shocking and yet the one false note in the story’s structure. If Antony could do this – and with so many witnesses the conspirators would surely learn he was the killer – the conspirators should have realized at once that Antony could not be trusted. Perhaps they reasoned Antony would stop with Quintus, who had attempted to kill him earlier.

Tears were in my eyes as Pullo makes Vorenus go to Niobe’s funeral. I’m pretty hard-hearted, so that’s saying something.

I have little emotion for the funeral for Caesar. Rome doesn’t show the famous speeches of Brutus and Antony – why compete with Shakespeare? - although we do get a replay later in a tavern. Instead we experience the aftermath, with Antony telling a shaking Brutus and Cassius to leave Rome – and they do.

Vorenus and Pullo discover who took Vorenus’ kids and sister-in-law, and come to kill Erastes –- but first Erastes lies and says the children are all dead. Vorenus leaves carrying Erastes’ head and with that trophy is now considered the master of the Aventine.

Title musings. Passover, of course, is a Jewish holiday, and when this episode was written -- when the creators still expected five seasons instead of being forced down to two -- they creators planned to deal much more with events in Judea. The Jewish holiday celebrates the fact that the Israelites were spared the last of Moses’ plagues on Egypt before – the one in which the Egyptian first-born died – the one which caused Pharaoh to relent and let the Israelites leave. The Israelites escaped the plague by painting their door-posts with the blood of a lamb, a signal to the Angel of Death to pass over their homes and to leave everyone alive.

This story is reflected several ways in this episode. There’s plenty of blood, and tension as more blood is expected to be shed. Who will be passed over – who will the Angel of Death spare? At first, everyone is in danger – and then, nearly everyone is spared (with the exception of Quintus Pompey). The immediate threat passes over.

The title applies in other ways. Niobe dies, passing over to the other side and her corpse is consigned to the flames. Mark Antony is not mentioned in Julius Caesar’s will, and so in this sense he is passed over. In reality Antony was a relative of Caesar’s and his right-hand man, so he might have expected to be in Caesar’s will. On the other hand, Caesar’s death was sudden and unexpected (assassinations usually are) and Caesar may have not expected for the young Octavian to inherit so soon. And at the end, we have an exodus – Brutus and Cassius and the other assassins are forced to depart, with Servilia remaining in Rome as a hostage.

Bits & pieces:

More characters means tripling up occasionally in the credits.

Pullo is a very skilled horse thief. Ray Stevenson is an excellent horseman.

Naked body count: Mark Antony out of his bath (alas, wrapped in a towel), German woman from Atia’s kitchen, Erastes (also wrapped in a towel).

We see many of the rituals for the dead: women’s hair uncovered, feeding the corpse mother’s milk, wailing women, men’s heads in hoods.

Adoption in Rome was pretty frequent and totally accepted.

Quotes:

Brutus: It was horrible, Mother. He wouldn’t die.

Vorenus: I curse you all. By all the gods below, I curse you to damnation.

Antony: Twelve mangy dogs can kill a lion.

Pullo: With permission of Venus and Mars, I ask you to be my wife.

Calpurnia: My husband is glad to receive you.

Octavian: If the will stands, and it might, you are mother to the richest man in Rome. If not, then Servilia has that honor.

Cicero: I cannot share in your glory. I can only applaud.

Antony: Listen. Why so quiet? A tyrant is dead. Surely the people should be happy. Where is the cheering throng at your door? Where are the joyous cries of liberty?

Antony: I swear on the black stone I am done with politics. You people play too rough for a simple soldier like me. Knives in the Senate house?

Cassius: Damn the law. He’s too dangerous to let live.

Brutus: You too, Mother?

Antony: And I have an angry mob that will roast and eat your men of quality in the ashes of the Senate House.

Vorenus: Flavio’s not coming.

Overall rating:

When a title really works, as it does for this episode, the episode has integrity. Several scenes were particularly good: Calpurnia spitting on Servilia, both times when Antony meets with the assassins, when Pullo convinces Vorenus to bury Niobe, and when Erastes tries to extend the last moments of his life by inviting his soon-to-be murderers to a glass of wine. The creators had good material to work with, and they used it well. Four spears out of four.

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

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