Rome: A Necessary Fiction

“My advice: look to your own people. This kind of affair is almost always someone close.”

Octavian Caesar is praising the virtues of women while his mother and sister are enjoying themselves with their lovers. He is introduced by Maecenas to a young Livia, asks her to marry him within thirty seconds, and she says sure, if her current husband does not object. Maecenas and Octavian then talk about the issue that drives much of this episode: the big bribe from Herod, a shipment of gold due to arrive in the very near future.

Timon is seen leaving Rome with his family. I recall his name is actually Tevye especially as his departure reminds me of Tevye leaving his village in Fiddler on the Roof. Timon is headed to Jerusalem, but Rome never goes to Jerusalem, so that is the end of Timon in our story.

Posca, using his wife Jocasta’s jewelry shopping as a cover, meets with Maecenas. It’s nice to see Jocasta content with Posca. Getting back to the gold: nearly everyone wants something to do with the money coming from Herod. Maecenas and Posca plan to take a “commission”. Lucius Vorenus wants to use Titus Pullo because he’s known to Antony and Octavian, a circumstance that displeases Mascius who is usually in charge of such things. Vorena the Elder, eavesdropping, learns that they plan to go by road instead of using the river.

The slave Gaia poisons Eirene who miscarries and dies. Rome does a stunning shot of Eirene’s death; her eyes become so empty. I cried when Pullo buried her. We learn that she was really called Adela and that she was from somewhere north of the Rhine.

Pullo is too grief-stricken to be in charge of the gold shipment, so Mascius goes after all. He is ambushed (and nearly killed). Vorenus has to go tell the triumvirate that the gold was stolen, and they all start accusing each other; Maecenas, convinced it was Antony, informs Octavian about the affairs of his mother and his sister. Vorenus promises he will find out where it is and what happened. Vorenus calls on Memmio and his men is certain, from their behavior, that they have the money. The swain who was seducing Vorena the Elder has a straw doll (the clue!) that he is giving to his semi naked lady friend. Memmio, no fool, realizes that he has been found out and calls for other captains for their help.

Octavian tells Livia that he will beat her for sexual pleasure. I guess Rome needed to do something different sexually and this was one route to take. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Livia and her intensity in this scene. The “No, sir,” and “Yes, sir,” were an interesting way to play it. Livia shows Octavian complete respect, which he wants – but I don’t sense that she’s a doormat.

Octavian summons his family to dinner, to introduce them to his bride-to-be and to punish the others for their adultery. He puts the women under house arrest and banishes Mark Antony to the east, again getting Rome back on track with history. Agrippa is spared in part because because he confesses, in part because Octavian says it would cause talk, and of course because in actual history Agrippa was Octavian's right-hand man.

Pullo and Vorenus try to determine the person responsible for the leak that led to the ambush. They assume it must be Mascius, who protests his innocence in a heart-breaking manner. A straw figurine gives Vorenus the clue that makes him spare Mascius’ life; he realizes Vorena, his own daughter, betrayed him. At first Vorenus cannot understand why, but she explains it succinctly: he killed her mother; he cursed her to Hades; and he forced her to be a whore. Vorenus tries to defend himself saying that he did not kill Niobe – and technically he did not, but he was about to, so he is guilty of all his daughter claims.

Antony says good-bye to Atia in a scene that feels real, and promises that he will send for her.

Antony is seen burning papers before he departs. I liked that touch; of course they would have to sort through everything that before a big move. While he and Posca are at it, the desperate Vorenus comes to join Antony – an interesting twist as Antony has in the past forced Vorenus to go places he did not want to go. The farewell between Pullo and Vorenus is extremely touching; again I cried. I appreciated how Pullo pointed out that Vorena is just as resentful as Vorenus, that she gets it from him, which I thought was pretty true, and which was not something that I picked up on my own (blushes a bit at my lack of insight). I also liked Vorenus’ message for his children: “Tell them I tried.”

Agrippa comes to say good-bye to Octavia and is just as confusing as ever because he is not actually leaving town and they will probably meet often. Octavia tells Agrippa she’s pregnant and does not know who the father is. Afterwards, Atia tries to comfort Octavia. Atia certainly loves her children deeply.

Pullo organizes an attack on Memmio’s men to retrieve the triumvirate gold. Memmio appeals to Pullo, as he thinks Pullo is a far more reasonable man than the harsh and capricious Vorenus – but Pullo is loyal to Vorenus and will not betray him. Pullo bites out Memmio’s tongue, which is a bizarre and awkward move, but I guess the choreographers of Rome’s fight scenes needed to come up with something different.

Antony goes to Egypt as commanded, and the visuals were stunning: the camel crossing, going through all the incredible doors, reminding us that Alexandria at the time was far more luxurious than Rome (what makes this especially impressive was that Rome’s budget for the Egyptian scenes were relatively limited). I also thought Cleopatra’s diaphanous dress was amazing – just the thing for a sexy queen of Egypt on a hot day, if you can carry it off. Her wig, too, was fabulous – a huge improvement over the ghastly macramé of prior episodes.

Title musings. Does the necessary fiction refer to the lies within the episode? Certainly there are plenty of them. Octavian tells lies at the beginning; he wants to believe that women used to be virtuous. The triumvirate are lying to each other; Maecenas and Posca are lying to their chiefs. Vorenus has been lying to himself about how his children feel. Vorena has also been lying. So, obviously, has Memmio, whose tongue is removed and who can lie no longer – which may have been the point of that act. Which fiction is the necessary one? Despite liking the episode (a lot) I am not keen on its title.

Bits and pieces

Naked body count: Atia and Mark Antony, Agrippa and Octavia, lady in Maecenas’ litter, Pullo calling for help when Eirene miscarries, and several women being enjoyed by Memmio and his men.

The relationship between the historical Livia and Augustus has long puzzled me. Livia is a brilliant, scheming character in Robert Graves’s I, Claudius – was she really so in life? Graves certainly makes a good case. Augustus and Livia had a real connection - how is it that they produced no children? Augustus already had a child; Livia herself had two. Graves in I, Claudius posits that they never had sex, but that Livia supplied him with many different slave women, an explanation that never felt right to me. Perhaps Augustus was gay, in which case his chief love was probably Agrippa and possibly he had a relationship with Maecenas. Or perhaps he was simply impotent. His one child, Julia, from his marriage to Scribonia (not part of Rome) was conceived when he would have been at his sexual peak.

There’s a great shot of an eagle eating a lizard. I’m sure it means something, as Rome’s symbol was an eagle, but I could not figure out what it is. If someone out there has an interpretation, please put it into the comments. Or maybe the makers of Rome just had a cool shot of an eagle eating a lizard and wanted to use it.

Quotes

Maecenas: For myself, I think the women of old Rome were a passel of whores and termagants.

Posca: The lower orders understand more than you think.

Pullo: I give my life to you to use as you like – if you’ll see that she’s happy now.

Memmio: Can’t have people robbing a fellow captain. It’s humiliating. It makes us all look bad.

Octavian: Someone somewhere is always insulting me. It’s the price of fame.

Memmio: I don’t expect you to help me out of brotherly love.

Octavian: The people are not so liberal with their wives as you are. They will say you wear cuckold’s horns.

Pullo: No one’s a traitor until they are.

Agrippa: Your mother could outfox Ulysses.

Octavia: You love my brother and the power he gives you. Why throw that all away for a woman?

Overall rating

The episode was more compelling than I expected. I cried when Eirene died and Pullo buried her; I was just as moved when Pullo and Vorenus said farewell. Despite a few odd moments – biting out someone else’s tongue is not just bizarre, it seems very awkward - and a high naked body count (usually a sign I won’t be so pleased as these are often filler) I have to give this episode four spears out of four.

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

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