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Rome: Testudo et Lepus (The Tortoise and the Hare)

“If this is the afterlife, it is extremely disappointing.”

At the end of the previous episode, Duro the slave/assassin had just poisoned Atia’s dinner, and the cook was bringing it out to give to Atia. This episode starts where the last one ends – but the cook pauses just outside the dining area to taste the food herself before serving it to Atia. Atia commands her to sing, as no other musicians are available and the cook has an excellent voice. So the cook sings, and collapses, dead, in front of everyone. They realize the stew was poisoned. Duro, who was watching – why? If Atia died, they would certainly learn about it, and if she didn’t, he’s in mortal danger – then runs for his life, followed by Castor, Atia’s steward. The episode then segues to Pullo riding as fast as he can. The music suits both, and was so good that it pulled me into the episode.

Octavia and Jocasta return from their evening out to find Duro being tortured by Timon. Jocasta again adds some comedy, retching when she witnesses the torture. Duro doesn’t want to confess that he was working for Servilia but Atia charms it out of him, promising him life – but then orders his death anyway. Duro tries to stay alive, but Timon kills him, dumping the body in a sewer. The blood on Timon upsets his family, but Timon defends what he does. The time with Timon’s family still feels like a digression.

The Forum newsreader informs us that Octavian Caesar and Mark Antony are about join battle. He calls Antony a traitor, letting us know that Caesar’s party now rules Rome. We don’t see the actual battle, but just the aftermath, as Pullo looks over the dead, searching for Lucius Vorenus. Pullo runs into Octavian (now Caesar) but does not recognize him at first – to be expected, as the part is now played by another actor (Simon Woods). Caesar helps Pullo, assigning others to look through dead and wounded, and telling him which way to go in case Vorenus is still with Antony.

We then see Caesar with his two main assistants: Marcus Agrippa and Gaius Maecenas. We’ve already met Agrippa, but this is our introduction to Maecenas, who is less forthright than Agrippa but politically more practical, despite his love for poetry.

I like how they have speeches ready for every occasion. Caesar also writes letters to Octavia and to Cicero and plans to head south towards Rome.

The episode moves to Pullo, now among Antony’s men, searching for Vorenus. At first Vorenus is angry to see Pullo – the last time they were together, Pullo said he slept with Niobe – but then Pullo delivers his news: Vorenus’ children are alive.

Mark Antony is having a shoulder wound sewed up while receiving bad reports on the status of his troops. He tells Posca he’ll head north to camp. Vorenus and Pullo arrive during this discussion, and Antony gives Vorenus permission to depart. Antony tells them to tell everyone that his fight with Caesar is not over.

But there are other people to fight. The episode moves to the east, where Brutus and Cassius have been gathering legions. Brutus, trying on armor, has his confidence back. He’s told a portrait would please his mother.

This lets us transition to Servilia, who has pretty much no one to talk to these days but bald female priestesses – and they’re not her friends either, as she gets kidnapped while doing so. Atia orders Timon to kill Servilia, and slowly. Given how Servilia tried to poison Atia, I’m more sympathetic towards Atia, but that may be because I like Atia’s character more than I like Servilia’s. Servilia tells Atia that she will feel degraded and defiled by this – but it is Timon who feels defiled, as do the slaves listening to the noblewoman’s screams. Timon defiantly frees Servilia who runs bleeding into the street. Is it the end of Timon and Atia?

Vorenus and Pullo are down south, looking for Vorenus’ children. Pullo has some uncomfortable things to say to the dour Vorenus. Pullo first explains that he never slept with Niobe. He also warns that the children will be different after being in a slave camp, and that killing the boy won’t help Vorenus establish a relationship with his daughters. Vorenus does not seem to listen, but he does – a good reminder to all of us, that advice sometimes needs a while to sink in.

Agrippa goes to Rome and speaks to Octavia, letting her know that, surprise, surprise, her brother won. Atia is relieved to know both her son and lover are alive. Cicero is the happiest at Caesar’s defeat of Antony, until he discovers that the new Caesar is just as ambitious as the old Caesar.

Vorenus and Pullo arrive at the quarries, giving us a glimpse at one of the worst parts of slavery of the day. Pullo tries to manage the business without bloodshed, but hey, it’s the fearsome duo and a whole bunch of people die. However, I actually cried when Vorenus hugged his wife’s son.

Title musings. The creators of this episode gave it a title in Latin, and then felt obliged to include the translation as well: “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Most people recall this fable of Aesop, in which the two creatures decide to have a race and the hare inexplicably takes a nap during it and hence loses. But how well does this title suit the episode? Certainly some people are moving quickly: Duro running for his life, Castor in pursuit; Pullo in search of Vorenus, then Vorenus and Pullo in search of Vorenus’ children. But those examples are not good mappings as in the fable the tortoise wins, not the hare. Are Octavian Caesar and his buddies supposed to be the tortoise, and Mark Antony the hare? As the hare (Antony) was supposed to have a great advantage in the fight, we could assume that, but Caesar and his friends don’t seem very tortoise-like. Or are they both hares, while Brutus and Cassius represent the tortoise? That doesn’t map well either. If anyone out there has a better interpretation, please share it.

Bits and pieces

When Atia sits down for her dinner, we see that it is light outside. The main meals were usually consumed while the sun shone, because it was easier to eat when you could see your food.

If a master was killed by one of his slaves, all the slaves in the household would also be killed, usually by crucifixion, although exceptions were sometimes made for very young children, whose lives were either spared or taken less cruelly. Owners lived in fear of being murdered by their slaves and this law generally prevented any organized rebellion.

Naked body count: Some unknown man to rape Servilia, partial nudity of a crucified woman, another naked slave girl, a naked man preparing to use Vorena the Elder.

Vorenus’ kids have still barely grown, although Octavian (now Caesar) has grown so much that he had to be replaced by another actor!

Pullo offers a bag of salt to anyone who can tell him how to find Vorenus. Salt was a form of currency: hence we have phrases such as “worth his salt,” and salt is the root of the for word salary.

HaShem is a Jewish expression - literally the Name – allowing reference to God without using his name, as that is considered disrespectful.

Rome’s Marcus Agrippa is boyishly charming, but I’m not sure how much he resembles the real Agrippa, who was an incredible general and engineer. The depiction of Maecenas seems truer to reality.

Octavian Caesar claims to have only one sister, but the real Octavian had two sisters: an elder half-sister, Octavia Major, and a full sister, Octavia Minor, who is closest to the Octavia we see in Rome.


Octavia: What have you been doing to the servants that they want to murder you?

Atia: Because it isn’t a legal confession unless there’s torture.

Atia: Next time you want a boy, buy one at the market. Any fool knows not to pick one up from the streets.

Timon: I’m their father, not you. You don’t tell my children what to do.

Levi: You breathe this fetid air of Rome, but you are not Roman. You walk her beshitted streets, you speak her mongrel language, but you are not Roman. You’re a Jew. You might forget that, but they never will.

Pullo: I came to tell him his children are not dead, but I must see if he is dead himself.

Agrippa: Your troops are gathering. Time to give them a speech.
Octavian Caesar: All right. Which one, do you think?
Maecenas: The one about money.

Antony: Now that is a real soldier for you. Most men just slip away into the night, but this one, he asks permission before he deserts me.

Cicero: Gods, I’m so tired of young men and their ambitions.

Overseer: Oh, leave off! He’s bloody dead already.

Pullo: Your spit dries fast here brother, best to save it.

Overall Rating

I found the episode gripping, which was rather surprising as I was in a grumpy mood when I sat down. So why did it grab me? Perhaps because we were following storylines that I already knew, instead of introducing new plots and new characters, which always slows down the story with exposition. The only really new character was Maecenas, and he is charming in his way. Besides, the fact that I teared up, as I did when Vorenus accepted Lucius as family, is a good sign for an episode. The music, too, played a role in holding my interest. Three spears out of four.

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

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