sevilia road  
an historical evaluation of Season 1

ANALYSIS: Episode 8

Overall, “Caesarion”, the eighth episode in the HBO/BBC series Rome earns 3 eagles in terms of its historical accuracy, a passing score even if only slightly. Like much of the rest of the series, episode eight contains considerable alteration and augmentation of the events which take place within its plot in comparison with the historical record of those events. In many cases, the alterations which do exist are there because they serve a specific purpose or follow a recurring theme which the series has developed in earlier episodes.

One such recurring theme which Steve Shill, the director of episode eight, mentions directly in the commentary of this episode is the role which the series depicts two men of common rank, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, having on the world changing events of the time period. In episode eight itself, Shill makes the comment during the scene in which Cleopatra utilizes Pullo to become pregnant just before she meets Caesar. This scenes stands out in the episode as one of the most groundless because not only does not documentation of Titus Pullo in Egypt exist, the historical record holds a strong suggestion that the child Caesarion actually resembled his father Julius Caesar. Nonetheless, it maintains an element of deus ex machina which has been present in the series since the chance finding of Caesar’s stolen standard in episode one by these two men. Another instance of this theme receives mention because of its occurrence in the previous episode, namely the finding of Pompey by Vorenus and Pullo. The series would then have its audience believe that these two men provided Caesar with the intelligence to follow Pompey to Egypt; whereas, the historical record gives the credit to Brutus.

Furthermore, to the credit of the writer and director of this episode, the character portrayal of historical figures matches well with what the historical record reveals for the most part. In this aspect of the screen writing, of course, strict adherence to evidence would leave the characters void of much of their personality, so authenticity of the depiction plays a greater role than accuracy. Thus, even though no evidence exists of Cleopatra herself using opium, its known presence in ancient Egypt makes it an intriguing and entertaining dimension of her character development as a calculating though spoiled princess. Another well developed character is the eunuch Pothinus who plays an important role in the development of the episode’s plot. His thinly veiled, obsequious responses to the insults and demands of superiors provides an interesting glimpse of someone who must toe the line between favor and disgrace of those holding absolute power over him. One could go on much further critiquing and praising the character portrayals, but these two highlight well two figures whose stations in life, eunuchs and women, did not hold much renown in their contemporary society.

Another aspect of this episode which does not exist in most of the others is the contrast between ancient cultures. The episode does well to highlight important differences between the Egyptians and Romans which may have not made it into the historical record but surely would have influenced the interplay between Caesar and his opponents. The first meeting between Caesar and Ptolemy serves as the epitome of this difference with Caesar attempting to greet the king in the middle of a litany for him and being cut off. Here the episode seeks to illustrate what Cassius Dio refers to when he calls the Egyptians “the most religious people on Earth.” This does not intend to say that the Romans were not themselves religious, as in fact religion is a common motif in the series as shown in this episode by the cremation of Pompey’s head, even if the Latin text recited was not religious in nature. The main contrast which the episode seems to strike is the manner in which religion is carried out. For the Romans it is personal, and for the Egyptians public because of their ruler worship.

Historically speaking this contrast was not so simple. Roman religion had a strong public component, and the series leaves out a great deal of religious issues which pertained directly to the public life of the city. Earlier episodes do take this into account somewhat such as when Caesar bribes the head auger into giving a favorable reading of his occupation of Rome. The cynicism shown in that episode towards Roman religion, however, does not carry over in regard to Egyptian religion. Despite the comic buildup of the scene which ends with a bored boy king shown as receiving all the attention, the Egyptians do not give off the same sense of religious disregard that the Roman patricians do. The dialogue between Vorenus and Pullo further illustrates this when Vorenus chastises Pullo’s disparagement of Egypt because of the nation’s ancient and powerful deities.

One area where the episode leaves something to be desired is with the Alexandrian war itself. The most that the episode depicts is a mob rallying outside of the palace and pelting the Roman soldiers with stones. On the contrary, Caesar starts an entirely new work to follow the Civil War which discusses this war and the many that succeeded it in Africa and the Near East. No references to sea battles or the jockeying for the island of Pharos receives treatment; although, brief mention is made by Cleopatra when she tells Caesar that he who controls the outlet of the Nile control Egypt. Another unfortunate lapse in the episode is the absence of Ptolemy and Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe. The historical evidence would indicate that the engagement of the early part of the Alexandrian war began with this member of the royal household.

She also seems to have contributed to the confusion over which Egyptian ministers Caesar actually executed. The episode depicts him as having both Pothinus and Theodotus beheaded after the return of Cleopatra. Meanwhile, Caesar takes the blame (or credit) for executing Pothinus but does not mention Theodotus. Later in antiquity, though, Appian claims that Caesar had Pothinus and Achillas executed for the murder of Pompey. To the contrary, Caesar in the same passage cited from the Alexandrian War claims that Arisnoe had Achillas executed after they wrangled for control of the Egyptian army. Plutarch mentions the fate of Theodotus as being crucified years later by Brutus in punishment for Pompey’s death. This much confusion in the ancient world no doubt left the writers somewhat perplexed as to what to do with the executions, so they did the best they could to get the point across.

All in all, the episode creates a successful mix of historical accuracy and maintaining the themes of the series itself. Perhaps a little less gratuitous sex could have made time for more battle, politics, or historical intrigue, but for a forty-five minute episode to contain the entirety of Caesar’s Egyptian affairs it does well. It succeeds in communicating minute historical details such as the multiple titles of the Egyptian pharaoh (“he of the two ladies”, “he of sedge and bee”, “the son of Horus”) and the debt owed to Rome by the Egyptians. This attention to detail pushes it over the top to receive its favorable three eagle score.

Charles Hall '11