Friday, 12 March 2010

Rome: How Titus Pullo Brought Down the Republic

This is Rome. There's lots of sex, violence, bad language, etc.

The title tells you a good deal about this episode - it's one of those episodes where the writers go to great effort to shove the story of Vorenus (Boring Soldier) and Pullo (Dodgey Soldier) into the actual history of the end of the Roman Republic.

We open with Caesar in Gaul, where the soldiers are getting restless. Caesar's slave explains the plot - Caesar's term as proconsul is about to run out and he needs to do something. Antony is going to become a tribune and they needs to make sure he behaves himself. Cut to a scene of Antony shagging an unhappy-looking woman against a tree while a bunch of soliders, including Boring and Dodgey, wait nearby. It would be kind of funny, if it wasn't yet another example of how every male character in this series except Boring Soldier appears to be a rapist, which is rather depressing and makes ofr uncomfortable viewing.

Boring and Dodgey return Octavian home, where Octavia and Atia are still fighting over the forced divorce from Octavia's (fictional) first husband, Glabius. Octavian invites Boring Soldier and Dodgey Soldier to dinner as a reward, much to everyone's discomfort - it's a bit like that bit in Titanic where Cal invites Jack to dinner with the sole intention of making fun of him. They all sit up on their couches to eat - good for the digestion, but not very Roman, surely. Boring Soldier is all in favour of the continuation of the Republic and of honour, Dodgey Soldier wants Caesar to invade Rome itself with elephants and Octavian, ever the pragmatist, thinks the Republic is doomed. Atia is amused by the soldier's bickering and invites them back any time.

Boring and Dodgey part in bad moods with each other, but Boring tries to make it up by recommending the cleaner brothels. Then he returns home to his wife, Niobe, whom he has not seen in eight years. He is less than impressed to discover her holding a baby, while she is somewhat taken aback by the fact he's alive. She tells him that the baby, Lucius, is his young daughter's son. He is introduced to his daughters, one of whom must have been born after he left, she's so young, and who both look terrified, while Niobe explains that the paymasters told them he was dead. Niobe is not impressed at being addressed as 'whore' (what with the baby and everything) nor with Boring Soldier complaining that the food has too much salt, so they're not off to the greatest start, though he has brought home plenty of money.

There's a totally unnecessary scene of Dodgey Soldier having rough sex with a prostitute, then we cut to Atia holding a meeting with Cato, Cicero, Pompey and Antony, who is yet another one of her lovers and who, for some inexplicable reason, peppers his language with Italian, which is especially odd since they're all supposed to be speaking Latin already. Pompey demands that Caesar resign for the crime of illegal warfare, treason and a few other things, while Caesar demands that he be given a province. No one can agree to anything and the others leave while Antony goes off to bonk Atia.

Random shot of full frontal male nudity, right up near the camera. Hmm. Dodgey Soldier is busy gambling while Boring Soldier has boring sex with his very unhappy-looking wife. At least this one probably isn't rape, though she does not look like she's having fun - more lying back and thinking of Rome. Dodgey Soldier realises that he's being cheated and gets into a fight, during which several people are killed and he gets smashed over the head with a vase. He manages to crawl to Boring Soldier's house, and a doctor is fetched to perform trepanation without anasthetic - ouch. Eventually he passes out and the very expensive doctor does not know if he will wake up, which does not improve Niobe's mood, and Boring Soldier goes into emotionally-abusive-husband mode as he inisists that she must not question him (probably normal for a Roman husband, to be fair).

Trepanation without anasthetic. Ouch.

Pompey and Cicero discuss politics while watching a minor gladiatorial combat, because we're halfway through episode 2 and we haven't seen any gladiators yet. Cicero tries to point out that Pompey's demands on Caesar will result in war, but Pompey won't listen. He has decided to disappear off to Spain if he doesn't get his way with the Senate, leaving Rome undefended against Caesar.

Boring Soldier is yelling at his daughter's boyfriend, who, obviously, should not have been sleeping with her outside of marriage, but who wishes to marry her now. Considering what we will soon learn about the baby, both he and the daughter take an awful lot of crap for something that wasn't their fault. He agrees, grumpily, to the marriage though.

Pompey has a crony propose that if Caesar doesn't meet their demands he should be declared an enemy of Rome, and the Senate take a while to agree, Antony slouching in an arrogant fashion, Cicero hesitating for ages, but the motion is about to be carried when Cicero screams at Antony 'veto the motion! veto the motion!'. Then there's a lengthy debate about exactly whether it should pass or not. To be honest, I'm a little lost, I don't know how anyone without knowledge of Roman politics would feel.

Boring Soldier walks in on Niobe complaining to Dodgey Soldier about how unaffectionate he is, while Dodgey Soldier defends him and tells her how faithful he has been. The Soldiers have to go back up Antony, and Boring Soldier tries to reassure Niobe that he likes her, though doing so in a cross voice doesn't help. Antony, meanwhile, is having dinner at Atia's House of Screaming Coitus (a subject Octavia brings up at dinner, complete with When Harry Met Sally-style imitation).

Boring and Dodgey Soldier save Antony from a street assassin, thus endearing themselves to another major figure from Roman history, then an all-out fight breaks out. Caesar is declared an enemy of Rome and Pompey explains that Caesar now has no choice, and will have to march on Rome in the spring. Antony, meanwhile, rides out to join Caesar in Gaul, still in his bloodied toga, with Dodgey Soldier and a wounded Boring Soldier in tow. Caesar says Antony looks just right to address the men. James Purefoy certainly suits the bedraggled look, though somehow I don't think that's what he meant. Caesar asks if any of the men are worthy of praise and Antony names Dodgey Soldier, who beheaded the first attacker - presumably this is the act that is referred to in the title.

Mmmm.

Caesar gives his men a rousing speech about how the Republic is the hands of mad men who attack tribunes in the street and commends Dodgey Soldier in front of everyone, paying him 500 denarii and obtaining his loyalty, at a very loud volume. The whole army rides up to the Rubicon, where a cute small boy is fishing and watching them. At no point does anyone say 'the die is cast', which ios very disappointing, even if it is a fair interpretation. Boring and Dodgey Soldiers appear to be in a medicinal litter, Boring Soldier being carried across the Rubicon and made into a rebel against his will and gloomily predicting that they will be crucified on the Appian Way within a week. We see Niobe feeding the baby, who is actually hers, from when she thought Boring Soldier was dead, and with that soap-opera worthy cliff hanger of sorts, the episode ends.

This episode ought to be very dramatic, but somehow it feels more like a filler of sorts. The plot keeps moving, but aside from Boring Soldier's return home, nothing terribly exciting or satisfying seems to happen. They may have explained the significance of the crossing of the Rubicon but, if so, I missed it, and the event itself just slips by quietly, which is a shame and a wasted opportunity, I think. All the politiking in the Senate is also not as clearly explained as it could have been, and since that is the basis of most of the action of the plot, the episode somewhat lacks emotional impact. It says something that Boring Soldier's storyline, involving his much more sympathetic wife, is the most interesting part of the episode. Niobe is a genuinely sympathetic and engaging character, beautifully played by Indira Varma, and soapy as it is, her accidental-baby-as-result-of-affair storyline does capture the interest.

Describing Pullo as bringing down the Republic is also a bit of an overstatement, since the Republic was pretty clearly on the way out anyway - his later involvement with Cleopatra has much more apparent impact on history than his actions here. In the next episode, in which Caesar finally gets to Rome and Pompey flees it, things pick up a bit.

Edited to add: rogueclassicist has an excellent stream-of-consciousness take on the episode here, in which he comes to the exact opposite conclusion to me!

4 comments:

  1. IIRC, The assassin was supposed to only threaten Antony, not attack him. However, he was one of the people Dodgy Soldier had been fighting earlier in the episode and attacked him - not Antony.

    In other words, if D.S. had not got into a fight gambling then Antony would have been able to use his veto unmolested and Caesar would have had no reason to invade Italy.

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  2. Ah, OK - the guy was one of the gamblers Dodgey Soldier had been fighting earlier, so yeah, that makes sense. Though I think the Republic might have fallen anyway... :)

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  3. This may seem like an odd comment to your whole post, but actually trepanation without anesthetic probably wouldn't be that bad. The only nerve endings involved are those in the scalp. Everything else is incapable of sensing pain. It probably wouldn't hurt much more than a bad cut. Even today, many forms of brain surgery are done with a local anesthetic so that the patient can provide information when parts of the brain are stimulated.

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  4. I'd forgotten that - now you mention, I vaguely remember discovering (via ER!) that brain surgery is done while the patient is awake, I think they use a local anasthetic but it obviously isn't considered to need a general one. The whole idea still fills me with horror though! :)

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