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Rome: Death Mask

“No one believes what the newsreader says.”

The episode opens with Servilia staring at a death mask of her son, Brutus. Her servant tries to comfort her but Servilia will not be comforted.

Jocasta, now a penniless orphan due to the prescriptions of the previous episode, marries Posca, thanks to Atia’s arrangement. What does not come up is how Atia and Posca were responsible for putting Jocasta’s father on the list of prescriptions in the first place, and as Posca and Jocasta are not exactly main characters, it never will. The two wed in a simple ceremony with the household and the chickens in attendance (I liked the chickens). Atia, watching, hints to Mark Antony that she would like to marry him. The celebrations are marred, however, by Servilia who is calling for justice in front of Atia’s door.

Titus Pullo and Eirene enjoy a moment together. The camera angle, from above, is rather odd but their bed sure looks comfortable.

The episode shows an exchange between Lucius Vorenus and Memmio about shipping berths and grain. This is done so that we can understand the business of the gang leaders, but also so that we can watch a meaningful glance between Vorena the Elder and one of Memmio’s men. We see that Vorena has a large collection of straw figurines, evidence that the romance has been going on a while.

Mark Antony meets with Octavian Caesar and Lepidus. Lepidus reports how troubled senators are about potential tyranny, but the others ignore this. To avoid confusion in their tyranny, the triumvirate decide to divide responsibilities but share revenues. Antony takes Egypt and the east; Octavian takes Rome and the west, and Lepidus gets northern Africa.

The slave Gaia is insolent toward Eirene, and Eirene demands that Pullo beat her. Pullo tries to whip Gaia but then they end up having rather fierce sex. I have trouble with this scene. Not because Gaia fights back but because I really dislike her character. However, I do like the fact that Pullo has trouble killing or even hurting women (he could not even kill the old woman who witnessed one of his for-hire killings in an earlier episode).

The poor from areas controlled by other gangs are stealing from Vorenus, who has a very relaxed attitude towards the matter, one which we could not imagine a few episodes back. We see how the fact that his children are with him again – and he believes they love him – has changed him. Of course, not all is well. Vorena is having an affair with Memmio’s man, and Memmio “discovers” the two of them together. Memmio threatens to tell her father, but as Vorena hates her father she is eager to be a spy and so they come to an arrangement.

Atia finally goes out to Servilia, still yelling in the street. Servilia really does look mad; the make-up people did a great job. She curses Atia and kills herself; her servant kills herself immediately afterwards. Now, I was not moved by this, possibly because I never warmed up much to Servilia. Perhaps the makers of Rome recognized my reaction, because they strengthened the suicide by having other characters be moved by it. The tactic was effective, at least for me.

The Forum newsreader announces that Prince Herod from Judea is visiting Rome; in a charming scene, Herod bribes Antony. Posca wants to know what his share will be, Antony says: "Nothing." Note how different this is from what Julius Caesar did with Antony; Caesar knew that Antony was stealing, and permitted some but kept it in check.

The shots of Herod and his men, which I really liked, provide a natural segue to the thread where Timon and Levi plot rebellion for their people by planning to murder Herod. I agree that it makes sense to show that some of the conquered are unenthusiastic about their Roman overlords, and that Judea, next to Egypt, is probably most familiar to viewers and is a sensible choice. But Levi is such an idiot, and Timon doubly so to yield to him, that the storyline falls flat.

Maecenas is approached confidentially by Posca who lets him know about Herod’s big bribe (and this is why you give your underlings a share, so they don’t do this). I love the setting and the conversation. Later Octavian confronts Antony, who is furious about being found out and wants to know how it happened -- then Maecenas says that he has bought one of Herod’s people, in a manner so plausible that Posca is safe. The matter causes a falling out, and to restore the sense of an alliance, Atia recommends a marriage between the two houses. She believes she will finally marry Antony.

But Octavia, not Atia, marries Antony – a surprise and disappointment to poor Atia but not news to anyone who knows history. Sometimes Rome has to go through some contortions to get back to the actual timeline. Agrippa, too, is unhappy; the perceptive Maecenas gives him a gentle warning.

I really liked the marriage procession (the procession, with the dancers and the nobility, not what I will describe next). Herod is in it, and Timon and Levi are about to dash in to murder him – then Timon cannot because he sees Atia, his former lover. Evidently Timon, like Pullo, has trouble harming women, as we saw when he released Servilia in a prior episode. The non-attempt is just as well – not just because it wouldn’t work and because history tells us Herod was not murdered in Rome – but Agrippa and Antony, both great warriors, are in the procession too. An attempt to assassinate Herod would surely fail -- so Timon kills Levi instead. It was not the most realistic of storylines but I’m grateful to anything that rids Rome of Levi. Yes, it’s terrible to kill one’s brother but the brother, given what he was plotting, was going to die anyway. Again, a death that lacks much emotional resonance, at least for me.

Antony and Octavia have their wedding night, while poor lonely Atia wonders if Servilia’s curse is coming true.

Gaia goes to purchase herbs to induce a miscarriage. I suppose we’re supposed to believe she’s pregnant from her encounter with Pullo. We see a reflection of Gaia as she leaves the shop, which is very like the death mask that we saw of Brutus at the beginning, and too eerie for what she ostensibly has planned.

Title musings. We see a death mask at the beginning of the episode, and the reflection of Gaia at the end. We also see a few more deaths: Servilia, her servant, and Timon’s brother Levi. On the one hand, deaths and masks, although featured, did not really feel like a unifying theme to me. On the other hand, “Death Mask” is a great name for an episode, and it’s easy to pronounce, unlike some of the other titles.

Bits and pieces

Mark Antony is shown to be reluctant to marry. But the real Mark Antony married often. As he never let his unions restrict his extramarital activities, I suppose the real Mark Antony had no reason to be reluctant to wed – unlike the Mark Antony we see in Rome.

Naked body count: Gaia and Pullo (sort of), boobs being washed, Memmio’s man, Agrippa and Octavia, Atia and Antony, Octavia and Antony (sort of).

The curse of a dying person was supposed to be especially powerful, and so Servilia killing herself right after cursing Atia would give her words potency.

Maecenas is having his leg hairs removed, one by one.

I liked the procession, especially the man all one in silver.


Servilia: No more sleep.

Atia: I know men, and this one will make a lovely husband.

Octavian Caesar: Clearly we three cannot all rule at once. We will confuse and contradict each other.

Eirene: Go beat her dead.

Pullo: No, it’s my wife she insulted. It’s my responsibility.

Gaia: She’s such a mouse of a woman. You’re such a lion of a man.

Antony: Now that is an exit.

Newsreader: All citizens, be aware that the vassal, Prince Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee, has come to the city. By order of the Triumvirate, during his residence here, all mockery of Jews and their one God shall be kept to an appropriate minimum.

Antony: Really Posca, ever since you got your freedom you have become insufferably greedy. Go home, have a good lunch, make love to your pretty young wife, but do stop grubbing about after other people’s money.

Levi: If not us, then who?

Maecenas: And what is marriage if not a machine for the production of babies?

Overall rating

Rome often suffers when it has to re-align with reality, and the deaths in the episode had little impact on me. In fact, I was happy to see Servilia and Levi die – but their deaths didn’t make me like the episode more. On the other hand, I liked seeing Posca take a more active role in the series, and I enjoyed Herod, and some of the make-up, costumes, and settings were terrific. Two 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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