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Rome: Pharsalus

“It didn’t seem possible to lose. That’s always a bad sign.”

This episode is about the battle between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus at Pharsalus, located in a place now called Farsala in Thessaly, Greece. The battle is a true turning-point in history and impacts virtually every character in the series. Moreover, the characters are all aware that it is a turning point, and it ends up mattering just as much as anticipated.

Our heroes Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who were on their way to join the battle, have miraculously survived a shipwreck and washed up on a sandy island. Because of their situation they are not involved in the battle itself. Later in the episode they make a raft of floating corpses to escape to the mainland.

Scenes in the two war camps are juxtaposed in an obvious but well-executed manner. Caesar confers with Mark Antony and Posca and realizes that they will have to fight, although arithmetic and geography are against them. Caesar says: “We must win or die. Pompey’s men have other options.” Posca points out that it is unusual to turn desperation into advantage, but Caesar has nothing else to work with. The leaders in Pompey’s camp, who have enjoyed several victories, are already dividing the spoils.

Our characters still in Rome also await the decisive battle; they expect Caesar to lose. The Forum newsreader also announces that most of the 13th legion have been lost at sea. Niobe does not know if she is widowed, which allows a reconciliation between her and her sister Lyde, who went through a similar bout of uncertainty. Atia sends Octavia to Servilia to ask for protection as Caesar's defeat will be dangerous for her. This is painful for Octavia, who has been embarrassed by her mother’s treatment of Servilia. She forms a friendship with Servilia.

The creators of Rome wisely decided to skip most of the battle itself, as that would have been expensive, confusing, and possibly boring. They show Caesar and Pompey preparing – performing ritual prayers and donning armor – then setting off. Only a few blurry clashes show that the battle has taken place and then we see that a weary Caesar has won. Later, in a manner that allows the information to be comprehended by viewers, Pompey explains to Vorenus how he lost.

Losing is always difficult, especially when you survive and still have to make decisions. Pompey’s group has few options, all unpleasant. Scipio and Cato leave for Africa to fight on; Brutus and Cicero decide to surrender; nearly everyone deserts Pompey. Caesar is magnanimous when Brutus and Cicero surrender, but how can he ever trust them again? And then the news reaches Rome. A despairing Servilia does not know if Brutus is alive or dead and Octavia comforts her.

Our heroes – in an amazing coincidence - run into a disguised, fleeing Pompey. After his identity is discovered, Pompey begs to be allowed to continue with his wife and children to Egypt. Vorenus relents, a questionable decision (Pullo is furious) but as Pompey really did go to Egypt, the series is forced to make several awkward left-turns to realign with reality.

Caesar is extremely conflicted about Pompey. He is glad to learn from Brutus and Cicero that Pompey still lives, but angry with Vorenus and Pullo for not having killed him. Nevertheless, Pompey comes to a bad end, beheaded on the Egyptian shore, in an excellent depiction of what really happened.

Title musings. Today, the word Pharsalus may seem as obscure as the word Egeria, the title of the previous episode. However, in this case the whole episode is centered on the Battle of Pharsalus, from anticipation to aftermath. The title works and may even educate a few people (it did me).

Bits and pieces

In appropriate symmetry, in the morning Pompey sends a message to let Rome know the decisive battle will be that day. After Caesar wins, he sends the message to Rome.

Pompey chooses "Aeneas Mella" as his alias. Mella has many possible meanings, including a river in Italy. Or perhaps he was just borrowing and slightly altering his wife’s name (Cornelia Metella). But the choice of Aeneas is easier to interpret – Aeneas was a refugee from Troy after it was defeated and was credited with eventually founding Rome. Aeneas was also supposed to be an ancestor of Julius Caesar’s.

I really admire the behavior of Cornelia, the wife of Pompey, as they face such adversity. It’s hard to imagine Octavia working so hard to keep up her spirits and the spirits of those around her! Politics aside, I think Pompey made a wise choice in his fifth wife.

Although the little boy and girl are adorable and give Cornelia and Pompey young kids to protect, I don’t think they have any historical basis. Pompey’s children were all adults, and I can’t find that Cornelia had any from her first marriage.


Antony: Dinner for worms. Whole damned lot of them.

Posca: Maps never redraw themselves.

Pompey: You are cooking rabbits that have not yet been caught.
Cato: But our rabbit is cornered – starving – and has lost near 2000 men.

Cato: Surely dignity and honor demand that we walk in his blood.

Atia: You’d rather not go. You’d rather be gang-raped by slavering proles while your mother’s house burns down around you.

Lyde: I’m tired of being angry. I’m tired of hating you.

Vorenus: You’re wasting your time. We’ll die of thirst long before we die of hunger.

Servilia: She has enjoyed her ascendancy a little too well.

Brutus: Africa? Dear gods, we are fast running out of continents.

Brutus: Do not talk to me of the Republic. If I had known what wretched company and rotten food I would endure – if I had known what an old fool is Pompey, I would never have left Rome.

Atia: What is wrong that you must harass the gods so?

Caesar: We’ll have no talk of surrender. We’ve merely quarreled a little. Now we are friends again, eh?

Pompey: That’s how Pompey Magnus was defeated. That’s how the Republic died.

Caesar: Do you not see that Pompey may be broken like a Dacian catamite and still be dangerous?

Overall rating

I really liked the choices with respect to the battle itself, focused mostly on build-up and consequence. In this episode the writers did not need to resort to filler; the actions and reactions of all the characters mattered. Of course, some twists strain credibility, especially Vorenus and Pullo encountering Pompey. I also think it is wrong of Vorenus to kill one of the men who saved his life (Pullo calls it unfriendly).

Also, why do they confess what happened to Caesar? They could have explained that they learned Pompey’s whereabouts but said they were too weak at the time to attack anyone. They had been too weak a few hours before, so this would have been only a stretch. Of course, Vorenus cannot tell a lie. Caesar, however, spares their lives, explaining later to Mark Antony: “They have powerful gods on their side and I will not kill any man with friends of that sort.” Those friends, of course, are the writers of Rome. Despite my quibble, the episode was powerful. Three and a half spears out of four.

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

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