Why HBO’s Rome S1 E1 is the Perfect First Episode (Part II: Characters)

Here’s the second part of this series. If you have not read the first part, feel free to check it out here where I discuss the central themes of the show. In this post, I will examine how some of the main characters are introduced in the first episode, both historical and fictional. I believe the creators of the show did phenomenal work in recreating these dynamic characters that lived two millennia ago, and I would like to write about some of my favorite historical figures of the Late Roman Republic. 

Just like the first post, I will bring in some historical references, mostly from Greek historian Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, to add to my analysis of these characters, point out where the show’s portrayals got right, and give some backstories to them before the year 50 BC – where the show picks up. Again like the first part, I will try not to spoil anything shown after episode 1. 

To preface this, I would like to note that in writing this I will inevitably fill in some of my personal takes. Don’t take them too seriously, and I would like to hear your thoughts too! 

Historical Figures

Gaius Julius

Caesar

I have to admit that I really like Caesar as a character. But even ignoring my biases, I still think the introduction of Julius Caesar is one of my favorite scenes in this entire season. I cannot describe how excited I was seeing this scene played out beginning from the very first shot. Why? First, this scene is a recreation of French artist Lionel Royer’s famous painting Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar

Lionel Royer, Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, 1899

In the French artist’s painting of a figure showcasing French nationalism, the hero of their ethical ancestors Vercingetorix is the central subject. He was the King of all the Gauls, the hero that united the Gallic tribes to rebel against Roman subjugation, Caesar’s formidable foe who fought him as his equal at the Battle of Alesia. Vercingetorix was ultimately defeated and forced to surrender himself for the lives of his people, but he was not disgraced. In the painting we see that he rides on a white horse with full armor, approaching Caesar and the Roman camp, laying down his weapon and a captured Roman shield with dignity and pride. 

The scene in the show extends upon the same scene depicted in the painting. But even though it is the same setup, Caesar is presented as the central figure here. We see that Vercingetorix threw down his weapon, was stripped off of his armor and clothes, naked and humiliated, laying his head on the Roman eagle standard and submitting himself to the authority of Rome, more specifically, to Caesar himself. On the other side Caesar, sitting on his elevated platform wearing a full red robe and a golden laurel wreath, looked down at his once enemy and now prisoner, remained emotionless in the soldiers’ thunderous cheering of his name. 

Throughout this scene, Caesar did not speak a single word nor make a single movement. Yet the audience can feel who Caesar was through the actions of the background characters – the submission of “King of all the Gauls” Vercingetorix, the cheering of his loyal soldiers – that all reflect the image of this towering figure. The casting for Julius Caesar in this show is also brilliant. The actor’s facial structure gives a natural impression of someone who is intimidating, authoritative, and prideful. I cannot think of a better introduction scene for Caesar. 

Caesar accepting Vercingetorix’s surrender

This is exactly who Caesar was. As a tactician, calculated with great endurance, cautious yet daring, displaying great self-restraint even in victory; as a commander, undergoing every toil just as his troops and always first in danger, merciful to his enemies and most generous to his soldiers, inspiring great loyalty among his legions even to fighting against their fatherland itself. 

Yet under his composed presence was boundless ambition and ego. Plutarch assesses that “Caesar’s many successes did not divert his natural spirit of enterprise and ambition to the enjoyment of what he had laboriously achieved, but served as fuel and incentive for future achievements, and begat in him plans for greater deeds and a passion for fresh glory.” Before he made himself known to the Roman world Caesar once wept for his own lack of success at the sight of a statue of Alexander. Now less than two decades later at the completion of his Gallic campaign, Caesar has amassed achievements surpassing all his contemporaries or Roman figures of the past, matching that of the great Alexander. Yet his eyes were not laid upon the defeated Vercingetorix beneath his feet but rather gazing at ever greater things. 

Caesar deemed himself worthy of every glory and was resolute to reach them, even those which were perhaps too great for a mortal man. That golden throne in Rome, which he eventually obtained, may also bring his downfall. 

Gnaeus

Pompeius

Magnus

In the introductory sequence, we’ve heard Pompey Magnus as one of the most successful generals in history with unparalleled military records, a consul of Rome, arguably the most powerful man in the Roman world. However, the first actual scene we have is a weeping Pompey in front of his dying wife Julia. 

Whether or not the choice of this scene being the first glimpse we have of Pompey is intentional, it certainly gives the audience the hint that Pompey may not be the strong, ruthless man we would imagine one once given the nickname “the teenage butcher” to be. 

Pompey travelling with his family

It is worth noting that this depiction of their relationship has historical backing. It was not a mere marriage for political alliance, but they were indeed in love with each other. From Plutarch’s writing, we see that Julia was infatuated with Pompey despite his advanced age; and in return, Pompey was devoted to his young wife, spending much time with her traveling in Italy instead of departing to his assigned provinces. 

In truth, Pompey in this episode as well as this whole show has displayed nothing but utter incompetence. Pompey Magnus was supposed to be the one paralleling Alexander the Great whom he modeled his name after, the one who subdued the Cilician pirates and restored peace to the Mediterranean Sea within three months, the one who crushed Mithridates and the Kingdom of Pontus and reorganized the entire Roman East. Yet in the show, Pompey is portrayed as frail, over-confident, indecisive, easily influenced by his allies, out-maneuvered by Caesar despite his seemingly overwhelming advantage, an old man chasing his former glory. 

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, The Triumph of Pompey, 1765, depicting the third triumph of Pompey at the peak of his power after his Eastern conquest

Such is the principal flaw of Pompey that Plutarch draws out: “a man who was a slave to fame and loath to disappoint his friends.” Unlike Caesar who early on positioned himself to be the successor of Marius of the populares and stood for the causes of the people throughout his career, Pompey had no ideology of his own. Pompey began his career as the chief henchman of the conservative dictator Sulla, yet when his own path to power was obstructed, he defied the dictator’s will; Pompey aided Caesar in his rise to prominence and received his share of benefits, but when his own position was challenged he ultimately sided with the optimates against his former ally. 

Pompey sought after power and fame and them only. He desired the love of the people and the support of his peers, yet he lacked in concrete will and plan to attain these. This, perhaps, is what separated him from the greats in history. 

Marcus Porcius

Cato

As Pompey dressed in a black toga for the mourning of his deceased wife walked out to the busy street, our attention was drawn to another man in a similar but much plainer black robe. Later in the senate-house, among a crowd of bickering white togae, that stroke of black stood out from the rest. This, we soon learned, is Cato, the leader of the optimates faction and Caesar’s most vocal opponent. 

Cato denouncing Caesar in the senate

In the biography for Cato the Younger, Plutarch notes that “Cato thought he ought to take a course directly opposed to the life and practices of the time… When he saw that a purple which was excessively red and vivid was much in vogue, he himself would wear out the dark shade.” It’s a sentence that would often go unnoticed in a book full of details, but the show’s creators picked it out, manifested it, and made it one of Cato’s primary characteristics.

If we follow the perspective of Caesar as the protagonist, Cato is an annoying enemy blocking the path to accomplishing his objective, a babbling old man of nobility class who has lost touch with reality. Yet this view is too one-sided. For one, Cato in reality was five years younger than Caesar. At the beginning of the show, both were in their late 40s at the twilight of their prime. 

The fate of Cato and Caesar seems always to be intertwined. In 63 BC Rome was in peril during the Catiline conspiracy, both were young senators. Caesar argued for the conspirators’ imprisonment to stand trial, but Cato spoke next and swayed the senate to condemn them to death. In year 60 Caesar was hailed Imperator for his victory in Spain, while Cato filibustered in the senate to force him to give up his hard-fought triumph in order to run for consulship. Next year Caesar was indeed elected consul, but Cato fiercely objected to every law Caesar proposed until he was thrown to prison. Now ten years later, Caesar added the entire Gaul to the res publica and became a hero in the eyes of the common; yet to Cato, he was the most dangerous enemy to the survival of the Republic and one he must stop even giving up his own life. 

Luca Giordano, Death of Cato of Utica, 1684. The death of Cato was a popular subject in art during the Enlightenment. The reason for it I cannot explain here…

That black was a black of an absolute uncompromising spirit, a black that contrasted against the degraded age, a black that mourned the dying Republic that he loved. The black, in my opinion, suits Cato of Utica very well. 

Marcus Tullius

Cicero

As the senate descended into chaos after hearing Pompey’s defense for Caesar, another senator stood up to quiet the crowd while cleverly earned himself a moment to voice his opinions. This man was Cicero, leader of the moderate faction. Through a concise analogy, Cicero criticized Cato’s method of confronting Caesar without any plans as well as Pompey’s way of befriending and appeasing the beast. 

Cicero voicing his concerns in the senate

This is a suitable entrance for Cicero. Plutarch often refers to him as Cicero the orator. Indeed, he was undoubtedly one of the greatest Roman orators in history. But after all, just an orator. As a novus homo – the first man in his family to be elected to the senate, Cicero lacked the prestigious family background and connections like that of Caesar; and as one valuing intellectual pursuit before all others, he disliked the army life and lacked any notable military honor or support of the army like that of Pompey. Just as Pompey scorned at his words of warning and Cato laughed along, Cicero the orator seemed powerless in the divided republic where even the grandest of speeches were no match against the edge of a sword.

Perhaps because of that, the show portrayed Cicero as somewhat of a coward, one often coerced by others and failed to stand up for his own ideology. However, this depiction is one I’m most displeased with. In reality, the orator fearlessly and resolutely defended the republic time after time with whatever means he had at hand. From In Catilinam against the Catilinarian conspirators to the Philippicae against another Roman powermonger, Cicero never remained silent. He fought for the republic he loved and the values it stood for through countless speeches and pamphlets to the last moment of his life. Cicero was once bestowed the honorific title of Pater Patriae, “Father of the Fatherland”, after saving Rome from the Catiline conspiracy. I believe this title was most deserved for him. 

Cesare Maccari, Cicero Denounces Catiline, 1889. We see the orator giving his speech in the center of focus and Catiline being isolated in a corner

Plutarch ended his biography of Cicero with this story that I found fitting. Around half a century later, Rome was again flourishing under their new emperor Augustus, seemingly forgotten of its turbulent past. One day, Augustus’ grandson was reading the writing of Cicero when Augustus paid him a visit. The terrified boy tried to hide it, but the Emperor saw it and took the book, stood there reading a great portion. After a long pause, he returned the book to the child and said, 

This was a learned man and a lover of his country.

Gaius

Octavius

At last, I want to write down a few thoughts about Octavian. No spoilers, of course. 

In this episode, Octavian was sent on a quest to deliver a gift to his great-uncle Caesar in Gaul. As Pompey and Caesar began to provoke each other behind-the-scene, his journey was inevitably tangled up with their conflict over Caesar’s stolen eagle – what this episode is titled after. He was abducted by Pompey’s gang who also stole the eagle standard, and he was rescued by our two protagonists sent by Caesar to retrieve the eagle. At the end, brought before the delighted Caesar were not only the lost eagle standard, but also his great-nephew Octavian. In a way, this is his episode. 

And how he shined in this episode with screen time he’s given. Through a brief conversation, Octavian immediately grasped the current state of the board, the skirmishes between the two giants beneath their apparent alliance. He discerned the intent and stratagem of Caesar in luring the opponent out as well as Pompey’s deadly mistake in his overconfidence – what even the most experienced soldiers of Caesar could not understand. All these indicated the early brilliance of a great statesman. 

The young Octavian staring into distance

Caesar never cared about the lost eagle itself; what amused him was Octavian and the immeasurable potential held in the teenage boy. Caesar had no sons. This distantly related great-nephew may be the closest candidate in line to be his heir. One may wonder, what path would Octavian be destined to? 

Main Protagonists

Before I started watching the show, I was baffled by the choice of having two fictional soldiers as the main protagonists. There were so many complex and intriguing figures in this Late Roman Republic, so why choose to focus on two ordinary and fictional soldiers? Now I’ve finished the show, I think I can finally understand and appreciate this decision. 

You have most likely heard of the story of Julius Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic. Then you would know who emerged victorious from the Civil War. You are probably also aware of the fate of Caesar on the Ides of March. If you have looked a little deeper into the Late Roman Republic, you may recognize who Octavian would become and what he would accomplish; you may remember the fall of Pompey the Great. And if you have closely studied Roman history, you may even know the end of the minor characters, like Brutus, Cicero, and Cato of Utica. This fundamentally removed any suspense in this storyline. Why would you worry about the encirclement of Caesar and his army at Pharsalus if you already know his end awaits somewhere else? 

But the show cleverly follows the perspective of two fictional soldiers in the Roman army. Exactly because they are fictional, we do not know anything about their fate. Despite knowing the grand timeline of each major event and its outcome, we have no clue how their journeys would unfold through these events and how their life would cross paths with the historical characters. This creative decision restores the element of unknown back to an overall historical show. 

Titus Pullo (left) and Lucius Vorenus (right)

We have our two protagonists: Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. Their names are not fictional but rather chosen from Caesar’s account Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic War”) of a pair of soldiers with these two names. (The easter egg I put in here!) Like their real life counterparts, Vorenus and Pullo were soldiers of the XIII’th legion under Caesar’s command during his Gallic campaign. Vorenus was a natural soldier and a strict constitutionalist who believes in the traditional values of the Republic, while Pullo was an unruly but loyal warrior who lives for his own pleasure and enjoyment. With such contrasting personalities, yet they have astounding chemistry together beginning even from episode 1. This lays another layer of solid foundation for the show. 

As the past is fixed and the fate of these historical figures cannot be altered, in a way our two protagonists are mere spectators offering the audience a window to peak into the Roman world. However, the show still finds ways to put them through all these historical events in bizarre and unexpected fashion. Caesar put it the best in a later episode, 

But those two, they found my stolen standard, stumbled upon the treasury gold, and now they survive a wreck that drowned an army and find Pompey Magnus on a beach. They have powerful gods on their side and I will not kill any man with friends of that sort.

Moreover, the two protagonists present us the unique perspective of ordinary Roman citizens, again going back to the theme of the elites versus the commons. They are just two normal soldiers serving in the military, just like thousands of other unnamed soldiers who fought and died during the Late Republic without leaving their trace in history. We may get caught up in the grand scheme of history that we neglect to imagine how a regular human being would live through these extraordinary periods of time. The show addresses that by spotlighting two ordinary soldiers simply going through their daily life in a world that would never be the same. 

Conclusion 

Here ends the final part of this series. Feel like this post deviates a bit from the focus of reviewing the TV show (huh reminds me of another series I wrote about…), though admittedly my intention has always been to explore the actual history behind the show. If this post can leave you the impression that Roman history or history in general is fun, then I think it has fulfilled its purpose. 

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Question: What is the longest year in human history? 

In the year 46 BC, the Roman calendar was in complete disarray. The high priest Pontifex Maximus who was supposed to be in charge of adjusting the calendar, one certain “darling of Venus”, *cough* was too busy campaigning outside of Rome that he has neglected this task. As Caesar had finally returned to Rome, he began fixing the calendar by adopting a new system based on solar movement with fancy leap years, which is now known as the Julian calendar. To sync the current year with the seasonal cycle, Caesar added two extra months to this year, making the year 46 BC officially the longest year in history with 445 days. 

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I don’t know why I mentioned all these when 2020 is literally longer by any metric. 

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Jokes aside, I would like to thank you all for the past year. I really appreciate every view, like, comment, and follower I’ve received. Sadly I have not been nearly as consistent and productive in updating this blog as I wished. Hopefully I can get better at it this year.

Looking forward to 2021 😉 

Footnote

Plutarch records a very interesting interaction between Caesar and Cato that adds to their complex relationship. Sadly it feels a bit out-of-place to include it in the post, but I find it hilarious and have to show it to you all. 

“The story goes that on this occasion, when Caesar was eagerly engaged in a great struggle with Cato and the attention of the senate was fixed upon the two men, a little note was brought in from outside to Caesar. Cato tried to fix suspicion upon the matter and alleged that it had something to do with the conspiracy, and bade him read the writing aloud. Then Caesar handed the note to Cato, who stood near him. But when Cato had read the note, which was an unchaste letter from his sister Servilia to Caesar, with whom she was passionately and guiltily in love, he threw it to Caesar, saying, ‘Take it, thou sot,’ and then resumed his speech.” 

  • Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, 24

You have to admit, Caesar absolutely owned Cato there. 

5 thoughts on “Why HBO’s Rome S1 E1 is the Perfect First Episode (Part II: Characters)”

  1. Glad to see you posting more frequently now! I haven’t watched the series yet, but I feel the descriptions you gave did an amazing job summarizing the characters with minimal spoilers. I really appreciate that! I’ve been thinking of watching it, and, at this point, the only thing holding me back is needing to pay for an HBO account and my desire to stay somewhat productive. I’ve really been enjoying the recent string of T.V. show reviews and I look forward to what you have planned next!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s also available on Amazon if you don’t want to pay for HBO Max. Sad story: when I first started streaming the show it was free on Amazon prime. I was eight episodes in when it suddenly became pay to watch. Apparently, that’s when HBO pulled everything out from Amazon and moved to their own streaming service. In the end, I had to buy the full season to finish watching it. (Do I regret it? Hmm I suppose it’s not that expensive…)

      Like

  2. smh, they totally ripped this off of star wars. julius caesar is clearly a character whose rise to power is derivative of the rise of jar jar binks in the first prequel, and the two “ordinary soldiers” obviously refer to obi wan kenobi and qui gonn jin. combine this with the unrealisticness of an empire called “Rome” that /textbf{somehow} existed before the start of history in 1776, and you get a strange tale that brings nothing new to the cinematic world.

    Ps. Caesar? Really? surely the writers should have been creative enough to name a character after something other than a salad.

    Liked by 1 person

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