Friday, December 02, 2011

Rome: Philippi
By Juliette Harrisson

Sometimes, Rome is really quite helpful with its episode titles (other times less so). We knew when we’d reached the final showdown between Caesar and Pompey because the episode was called simply ‘Pharsalus’ (as in ‘Battle of’), and here we know we’ve reached Brutus and Cassius’ final hour because the episode is called ‘Philippi’. Brutus tells Cassius that their men did not realise Greece was so large and are complaining, which handily tells us where we are. Following his rather odd John the Baptist moment, he is still being almost unbearably chirpy, while poor Cassius, though pleased that Brutus has got his act together, is trying to be slightly more practical about men, supplies, marching and so on.

Mark Antony is still wearing the Beard of Sorrow, possibly to emphasise his age and experience over Bingley!Octavian. The little psycho has compiled a list of supporters of Brutus and Cassius still in Rome for the two of them to kill, in order to ensure they’re not stabbed in the back and, as Maecenas points out, to get their money. This scene is particularly interesting as it is here that Cicero is condemned to death. Since Cicero is an extremely popular figure, both now and in the ancient world, the question of where to lay the blame for his death is an important one. For the ancients, one solution presented itself. Since (spoiler alert!) Antony eventually lost the later war between himself and Octavian, the obvious option is to blame Antony for Cicero’s death. This exonerates Octavian to an extent and ensures that his later incarnation, Augustus, is not associated with the death of Rome’s greatest orator and statesman. It’s also another way to drive nails into the coffin of Antony’s reputation. Plutarch puts it especially dramatically when he declares that, on seeing Cicero’s hands nailed up in the Forum, people ‘thought they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but an image of the soul of Antony’.

Modern interpretations which want to present a positive view of Augustus usually take this approach as well. The TV mini-series Imperium: Augustus is particularly dramatic about it, suggesting that the murder of numerous political opponents was a terrible hardship that Octavian only did because he felt he had to. It is Antony who insists on adding Cicero to the list. However, Rome is not interested in presenting a hagiography of Augustus - indeed, the series has already given him extra vices he didn’t really have, so its not going to sugarcoat things he actually did. On the other hand, the rivalry between Cicero and Antony is equally dramatic and that detail of Cicero’s hands being nailed to the rostra does sound more like something the passionate and occasionally reckless Antony would do, more than the usually (except when he’s stealing other men’s pregnant wives) calm and collected Octavian.
So the way the scene plays out here is very interesting. Octavian hands Antony a list of men to proscribe, killing them and confiscating their land. The focus, though script, camerawork and performance, is on the absolute coldness with which he does this and we are clearly directed to feel mildly horrified at this action, especially when Maecenas mentions the financial gain. Antony looks at the list and declares that they should kill Cicero first. This clearly implies that Cicero was already on the list (and indeed there’s no reason he wouldn’t be, since he’s clearly sympathised with Brutus and Cassius all along). Then, Antony says he wants to add another one or two names - so, as in the more pro-Octavian versions, he still adds names out of spite - but Cicero isn’t one of them.

Before they finish, Atia wants to add a name. Octavian firmly tells her they won’t kill Servilia because they won’t kill women, but she persuades him to kill Jocasta’s father for his money even though he has nothing to do with the politics. This is even more interesting - Octavian, while utterly ruthless, is only interested in killing for political gain. Antony is mostly about the politics but not above adding the odd person out of spite, while Atia is the nastiest person in the room by far, having a man murdered purely because she doesn’t like his daughter very much.

I think my favourite bit in the whole scene is just after Octavian has told Antony they should kill the men on the list, and Antony looks mildly impressed and says ‘You are a ferocious little (see you next Tuesday)… with a pen!’ As we will see, Octavian can talk the talk, but he’s not exactly at the front of the attack when it comes to physical fighting. Lepidus, by the way, hates the whole idea, but no one’s listening to him.
Lepidus is left behind in Rome because he’s a wet blanket who doesn’t like killing people. Agrippa is also sent back to Rome just ahead of Octavian and Maecenas, to get The Godfather to organise the mass murder. The Godfather and Dodgy Soldier are to kill Cicero personally, to make sure it’s done right (actually, Plutarch names Cicero’s killers, men whom Cicero had helped in the past, but he may not have got it right and it doesn’t really matter - though the pathos of those Cicero had defended murdering him is lost). At this point, Antony, with quite some venom, says to tell them to cut off Cicero’s hands and nail them to the Senate door - so the ancient interpretation of this action as Antony’s revenge for the very negative speeches Cicero made about him is maintained. He also makes this a threat to Octavian, looking right at him as he says he told Cicero he’d do that if Cicero ever crossed him again.
Antony and Atia have a quite sweet goodbye scene where he accidentally implies that he might marry her and immediately regrets it (historically, he’s married to someone else at this point, but since that rarely bothered real Romans never mind TV ones, we probably shouldn’t let it bother us).

The Godfather’s totally evil barmaid sulks because the Godfather won’t let her make-up his eldest daughter, while said eldest daughter sulks because… well, just in general really. The Godfather gives out the assassination assignments to the gangs, who are allowed to make off with the booty - I don’t think this is how it worked in real life, since the triumvirate wanted the booty for themselves (and Plutarch implies Cicero’s killers were well-off and high up enough to have hired Cicero in the past). The Godfather wants to feed the poor with some of the proceeds in the hope of improving their popularity (basically, he’s running a smaller version of the whole Roman political system from a bar). Some evil rival gang members decide to seduce Sulky Eldest Daughter to get back at the Godfather, and because she clearly has terrible, terrible taste in men (the guy is unbelievably creepy) it looks like it’s going to work.

Evil Barmaid is making eyes at Dodgy now, which does not impress Eirene, so he takes her, along with the Godfather’s entire family, to a picnic and murder party. He leaves them all in a pretty, picturesque woodland glade while he takes two minions to Cicero’s place. I have to say, I don’t think the Godfather is following Antony’s orders to see to Cicero personally here, but perhaps he and Dodgy are now like Troy and Abed from Community; they’re so close they’re practically one being.
Cicero gets warning that Death is quite literally coming down the road and writes to Brutus and Cassius warning them of the triumvirate’s plans (the letter doesn’t get through, as in real life it didn’t exist). Tiro tells him armed men are at the door and he must run, but as you’ve gathered by now, it’s no good. 
I have a couple of problems with this scene. One is that Cicero actually was running away, or trying to, according to Plutarch (and he’d done so before, though in slightly less extreme circumstances), though he was brave enough when he realised he’d been caught. My bigger problem, though, is Tiro. Tiro was Cicero’s right-hand man for most of his life, an extremely clever man who invented shorthand. He was freed several years before Cicero’s death, and continued to work for Cicero as his freedman. He happens to be a favourite of mine - partly, I confess, because I liked him so much in Steven Saylor’s Roman Blood! I don’t see that Tiro in the character going by that name here, who is not only still a slave, but who gurns and panics and whimpers (though his attempt to take on Dodgy with a wavering sword is rather sweet). Rome’s Tiro exists purely to make Cicero look good - Cicero is calm, still trying to achieve something with Dodgy at the door, reassuring Tiro that he will be freed in his will with some of his last words, so he appears generous and thoughtful to the last. That’s all very well, but I would have preferred that Tiro’s character didn’t have to suffer and be sidelined to achieve that effect - though at least we do see some of the love between Cicero and Tiro, which must have been there in reality, given how Tiro continued to work for his master long after his death, and which is nice.
That aside, Cicero’s death scene is suitably moving for such an important character, both in the show and in Roman history. Bamber is wonderful, full of sadness and resignation along with reluctance and fear. This is the first really major character death since Caesar, and the prelude to the deaths of Brutus and Cassius at the end of the episode, so the show takes its time, lingering on Dodgy eating he fruit and having a semi-philosophical discussion with Cicero about immortality while he goes about his job in a business-like fashion. It’s very effective, a weirdly calm death to contrast with the more chaotic battle-deaths to come.
Back at the family picnic, Lyde is pestering the Godfather to try to find a husband for Sulky Eldest Daughter. The Godfather actually does mean well - he simply doesn’t believe any decent man will marry an ex-prostitute and wants to protect his daughter from the non-decent ones - but no one else agrees with this point of view. Dodgy returns with poor Cicero’s peaches and everyone tucks in with gusto.
Later, we see Dodgy nailing up Cicero’s hands, as promised, and Posca brings Octavian some fresh names for the list, from Antony. It appears that Antony is sitting around deliberately thinking of people he could do without. Agrippa complains that they’ve killed enough people already, but Maecenas is all for getting more money to pay the troops. I love that Agrippa, the most successful military man among them, is the least comfortable with killing people for profit - it makes perfect sense. He kills people in battle, not in their gardens next to their peach trees. The development of this trio is really fascinating - Agrippa clearly has the most conscience, Maecenas clearly the least, while Octavian (the Kirk to their Spock and Bones - I’m all about the geek references today!) sits somewhere in the middle, ruthless but not vicious, though he’s more concerned with how he appears that what he’s actually doing (which fits perfectly with his later actions as emperor).
 Agrippa storms off in a huff and, of course, runs into Octavia. She needles him about all the killing-people and then complains that he’s avoiding her because of the awkwardness, which she thinks isn’t a good enough reason (all very well for her to say, he’s the one who had his heart stomped on!). She lets on that maybe the case isn’t hopeless, but he points out he will never be allowed to marry her because his father was a nobody and his grandfather a slave, so he could never marry Octavian Caesar’s sister (aside from the vague notion that I’ve accidentally wandered into Downton Abbey, in which Allan Leech plays almost the same storyline but his character has slightly more gumption, I love the irony in this, since Agrippa will eventually end up married to Caesar’s daughter and will be the direct ancestor of two emperors. Albeit mad ones). Octavia insists she’ll marry who she likes, which is ridiculous - she would never be that naive. They both angst all over the screen until eventually they snog, at which point they are interrupted by Maecenas, who gives Octavia a fantastically comical look that basically says ‘Really?’ Timon and his brother are feeling rebellious and looking for support in the synagogue, where they proceed to start a brawl, and come out looking very pleased with themselves. I think they’re becoming Zionists. Trouble is - I very guilty about this, but whenever they mention Judea and fighting their enemies, all I can hear in my head is ‘the Judean People’s Front?!

Dodgy is feeling dismayed about being second to the Godfather, following his chat with Cicero about immortality, and wants something more soldierly to do than hand out free fish. The Godfather nods and smiles in a vaguely smug fashion.
Nighttime. Agrippa and Octavia go to the Roman version of a cheap motel to have sex in a room with its own shower-thing, which is kind of cool. She does that thing couples on film sometimes do where one of them gets dressed and is leaving, and the other sits there, still stark naked. Isn’t she leaving too? Isn’t she cold? She appears to have fallen for Agrippa as badly as he’s fallen for her. He’s late to ride off to war, and Maecenas declares that he must be saying goodbye to some woman, and that he either has several whores or one lover - while the audience, of course, can see that he’s clearly guessed and is trying to get Octavian thinking about it. Agrippa runs in late and Octavian teases him about coming in straight from the brothel, at which point his sister rushes in declaring that ‘women’s troubles’ made her late. Octavian may be very clever in some ways - world domination and all that - but he’s clearly a bit of a thicko when it comes to human relationships.
Atia, however, is not and pulls the old ‘How long has this been going on?’; ‘How did you know?’; ‘I didn’t until just now’ trick. She warns Octavia they can’t ever get married, when they are interrupted by poor Jocasta, whose family has been murdered and who has been raped, and who collapses in the hallway, weeping. Octavia promises to protect her and Atia agrees, without showing a hint of guilt or remorse. She is one cold, cold woman.
Eirene and Dodgy have a chat in which we learn that in all these years of marriage, he’s never bothered to ask about her life before she was made a slave. He talks about how he’d like to go to war again, at which point she tells him she’s pregnant. She seems rather upset about it (given the mortality rates for babies and mothers in pre-industrial societies, I don’t blame her).

Brutus is waving around his father’s signet ring when a messenger turns up with the rather distressing news that Antony and his legions are with Octavian. Cassius says they must retreat but Brutus insists on ‘no more running’, and says they should either win with extra glory, or get on with it and die. And they have the upper ground, so it’s not completely suicidal.
There’s a rather impressive shot of large armies marching across an open plain. It seems we will actually see a battle this time, which is rather good - though, on the other hand, perhaps this is why the show was abruptly cancelled. Not so good. Brutus suddenly remembers that it’s Cassius’ birthday and wishes him a happy birthday, apologising for the lack of cake. It’s a wonderful, stiff-upper-lipped pre-battle conversation, in the best tradition of war movies in which soldiers face possible death with black humour and a certain calm. Antony (who has shaved for the occasion) is more about teasing Octavian, suggesting he should go for a pee now. The two armies advance in glorious CGI - they really did spend all the money on this episode - and, you know, fighting happens. As battle scenes go, it’s no Gladiator, but there’s some blood and some guts and some groinal stabbing. Meanwhile Antony and Octavian sit on their horses behind the lines, eating, like British generals in World War One. Antony decides he’d like to know what’s happening and rides on in. Octavian sends Agrippa in after him but does not go himself. This actually presents him in a braver light than history - historically, he claimed he’d been warned in a dream he was going to be ill, and spend the whole thing hiding in his tent. Cassius is mortally wounded, which makes Brutus very cross. His death scene follows, and it’s completely unhistorical, but fabulously dramatic. He kisses Cassius’ body, asks a soldier to tell his mother ‘something suitable’ (a sentiment no less fab for being nicked from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) then strips off all his armour and walks, sword in hand, into the oncoming forces to commit suicide by enemy army. The soldiers look a bit reluctant at first, what with one man armies not actually working in reality, but when he starts slashing at them with his sword, they lay into him like he and his buddies laid into Caesar. The camera pans away from directly above, and it’s all over.
Antony declares that the smell of ‘smoke, shit and rotting flesh’ is ‘beautiful’ (I bet he’d have loved the smell of napalm in the morning, if he’d known what it was) while a scrounger nicks Brutus’ signet ring and puts it on gleefully. The episode ends on that image, with suitably sombre music playing over the credits. This is a very good episode, that gives emotional, weighty death scenes to three major characters while advancing the stories of the others as well. We get several fresh insights into Octavian’s character, and Maecenas’, while Antony and Atia continue to be their gloriously amoral selves. Season 2 continues to go from strength to strength - it’s just a real shame that they blew so much of the budget on the battle scenes, ended up cancelled and had to rush the rest of the season, squashing the next 13 years into the remaining four episodes…