Rome: Philippi

“It has been an honor and a pleasure leading you. I am sorry we could not do better. But you must look to yourselves now — save your skins.”

The episode opens with a shot of the empty sky — this could be viewed as artistic and bold or simply odd — and then shows us a column of soldiers, with Cassius and Brutus talking about provisions for the army and looking for good ground in northern Greece. Brutus’ mood is excellent because he thinks they’re going to win and save the Republic.

The episode then moves to Cisalpine Gaul, an area just south of the Italian Alps going as far south as Venice and as far west as Lake Geneva, where the armies of Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony are encamped. Antony states the main strategy, good exposition for us viewers, but Octavian points out that taking advantage of strategic surprise is obvious and that they should also kill the friends of Cassius and Brutus (Maecenas reminds them to take their money too). Atia adds the name of Jocasta’s father, the men agree because he’s really rich. The killings are to be handled by Lucius Vorenus and his men and the other gangs on the Aventine.

The episode then moves to Rome. Vorenus objects to Gaia’s putting makeup on Vorena the Elder. Vorenus then gives out the lists of men Octavian Caesar and tells them they can take whatever they can carry. Vorena the Elder is outside and meets a young man who works for Memmio, one of the gang leaders.

Vorenus wonders how to spend the money that they will make from murdering all these rich men, and suggests to his colleagues that they distribute fish and bread to the people, in order to gain their trust, because times are changing and their gangs need to change also. This idea is not welcomed at first by the other gang leaders but eventually Memmio pretends to accept it.

The fellow setting out to woo Vorena the Elder makes her little gifts of straw. I rather like this idea; after all, what could the very poor give to each other?

Gaia tries to flirt with Pullo; he turns her down; their interaction upsets Eirene. Pullo suggests taking a short holiday in the country as Pullo has to go there to murder Cicero. Cicero, aware that men are coming for him, tries to warn Brutus about the reconciliation between Octavian and Antony, but the letter never makes it. Pullo’s murder of Cicero by Pullo is very civilized, done slowly. An interesting, excellent scene; this time the shot of the sky – with a bird representing a departing soul, or simply the freedom denied to Cicero – is moving.

Lyde, who is along for the day in the country, suggests finding a husband for Vorena the Elder but Vorenus refuses, because she deserves a good man and no good man would have her.

Agrippa and Octavia discuss the ethics of proscriptions. Agrippa says the work is unpleasant but necessary. Later they admit their love for each other, but Agrippa says they can never be together; he is too low-born and her brother will insist on a political marriage. Maecenas nearly discovers them in a compromising position.

The episode moves to a Jewish temple where they’re arguing about bribing officials to recognize Herod as king of Judea. A man points out that it is not clear who they’re supposed to bribe. An elder who sounds like a stereotypical New York Jew says they will not bribe anyone until they know who’s in charge of Rome. Then Levi starts a brawl in the temple. Later Timon (Tevye) asks what the point is in roughing up the elders of the temple, and Levi gives what strikes me as really stupid response. As you can tell, this scene did not work for me. Ugh.

Octavian and his troops start leaving for Rome. Pullo wishes to ride out — he’s a soldier, and feels weird handing out fish in the Aventine. Vorenus is full of purpose, but Pullo is at loose ends, until Eirene, in a later scene, informs him that she is preglant (she still has trouble with the language).

Agrippa and Octavia make love in a sort of bawdy house where well-to-do lovers can meet; I like the blind slave calling out the hours. Octavian and his men leave, and then Jocasta appears, begging for help as she describes the horror of the proscription – her family are dead and she has been raped. Atia, perhaps feeling some remorse, as Jocasta has never hurt her the way Servilia hurt her, promises her to take care of her. This is the one of the few non comic moments of Jocasta, and I’m glad we get a reminder how horrible proscriptions really were.

Brutus examines his father’s signet ring, expecting to be the next savior of the Republic, when word comes that Antony’s men have joined Octavian’s, and that Brutus and Cassius are outnumbered. Brutus refuses to retreat; he is an honorable man but he does make impractical decisions.

As Rome shows the Battle of Philippi we see the series’ best depiction of war so far. We get to see real marching: Romans on Romans so each side is using the same tactics. This must have taken a huge amount of money and time to film even if supplemented by CGI. We see that Antony is a confident, experienced warrior, and Agrippa is eager to fight, unlike Octavian who hangs back.

Cassius falls and is brought to Brutus and dies. I like how Brutus approaches death, first thanking and dismissing his troops and then taking off his armor so that he will be easier to kill. He attacks so that he will be killed instead of being taken alive – many blades strike him in a symbolic repetition of the death of Julius Caesar. At the end, the signet ring made from the crown of the last Roman king (509 BCE) is cut off his hand by a common corpse-robber and disappears from history.

Title musings. The Battle of Philippi (42 BCE) was one of the significant battles that changed history. The episode starts with preparation for it and ends with the actual battle; moreover much of what happens during the hour is because of the oncoming war. The proscriptions, including the deaths of Cicero and Jocasta’s father, Lucius Vorenus’ attempt to alter the role of the collegia, even Pullo’s wistfulness at his being left behind while the other soldiers march off – these are all relevant.

Bits and pieces

Proscriptions were common during regime changes. Killing off the supporters of your enemies while taking over their estates effectively consolidated power. Sometimes the supporters were merely sent into exile, and often their families were spared.

Like Atia’s litter being pulled by a horse.

In history, Octavian Caesar did not want to kill Cicero but had to because Mark Antony insisted. Octavian Caesar was always lenient with Cicero’s son in recompense.

Cicero claims that his actual assassin’s name would be in the history books but I couldn’t find it. If anyone knows it, please put it in the comments!

Naked body count: near naked ladies walking outside; Agrippa and Octavia making love in a bawdy house before he goes off to war.

Agrippa protests that he is too low-born to marry the sister of Gaius Octavian Caesar. But the historical Marcus Agrippa did marry into Caesar’s family. His second wife was a daughter of Octavia Minor; his third wife was the daughter of Octavian Caesar (then known as Augustus) himself.

Eirene talks about her people fishing in a very deep lake. I speculate that may have been Lake Geneva.

Quotes

Cassius: Let’s hope they fight as well as they eat.

Antony: Cicero is the cleverest bastard of them all and has the largest network of spies. He must die first.

Vorenus: Whoever wins in Greece wins Rome.

Cicero: I will be in all the history books. My killer’s name will be also.

Posca: Antony has many enemies. It takes time to remember them all.

Octavia: It’s tiring work, I imagine – killing people – even defenseless ones.

Agrippa: You are sister to Gaius Octavian Caesar. You’ll not be married to the commendable son of a nobody.

Levi: Remember, we are the chosen people.

Pullo: Violence is the only trade I know.

Atia: We all know how clever you are. No one needs reminding.

Brutus: If we are to die, this is as good a place as any.

Antony: If you need to urinate, now would be the time.

Overall rating

I thought this was a very good episode, even though the pace slowed down a bit at times, such as when the children played outside at the Aventine and in the country. I appreciated its lingering on the execution of Cicero, and a big hat-tip to the actual battle. Only one seriously bad moment: roughing up the elders in the temple? Three and a half out of four spears.

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

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