Arbitrary List! Entry: The Five Best Deaths from HBO’s ‘Rome’

28 Apr
I was recently rewatching my all-time most favorite TV show, HBO’s Rome, and realized I had a perfect opportunity for a blog entry. Unfortunately, Rome is not available on Instant and by all accounts may not be for a long time; HBO offers its own streaming for its content, so we won’t see its programming streamed anywhere but the HBO site anytime soon. So you can only get it on DVD.

It kind of goes without saying that there will be spoilers in this entry; I mean, if you haven’t watched the show and don’t want anything spoiled then perhaps you should give today’s entry a miss. On the other hand, if you are able to read English at all and are surprised to find Julius Caeasar to be a character who dies, then I congratulate you on your ability to filter information at such an astounding rate.

5. Vercingetorix, King of the Gauls

Vercingetorix’s death itself, a gruesome strangling, is not so interesting as what it signified.

When first we meet Vercingetorix, he has been defeated in battle by Julius Caesar, and is being ceremoniously stripped of his clothing and crown (a pretty bitching little number with pheasant feathers on it). A tall, striking man, he is forced to kneel and kiss Caesar’s standard as a sign of submission, and is then thrown in the dungeon.

There he stays for most of the first season, until he’s taken off the shelf and presented to Caesar one day, who offers a chilling ‘Goodbye, old friend,’ before instructing his minions to clean up the now-decrepit, broken man. As was made clear in the Princess Bride, you should be healthy (or at least look it) before you are broken.

Which is ironic, as he is being trotted out in order to be executed in front of the ravening crowd at Caesar’s triumph.

In the history of Public Relations, the Romans were goddamn rocket scientists. They knew better than anyone before or after (except the Nazis) of the power of perception over rational thought. Show a once-powerful person broken, in the right context, and the might of Rome doesn’t just become an idea to the people, it becomes sacrosanct. ‘THIS is what the power of Rome can do,’ such an event demonstrates. ‘Serve Rome, or fall.’ It’s perfectly illustrated by how the people cheer after Vercingetorix is strangled to death, and how his mouldering corpse is considered just another piece of decoration to be swept up, afterwards. Never mind what it signified to the other side (the decimation of the Celts and Gauls, and how Rome would now become rich beyond measure as a result of the massive gold reserves of Gaul and Britain); for the average Roman citizen, it was just so much confirmation that they were on the winning team.

4. Eirene

Being dragged behind a wagon is an excellent exfoliant. Look at that skin!

 Eirene’s death was startling not just because of how surprising it was, but because it seemed unnecessary.

In a historical show where people are dying left and right, it seems almost unfair that a character who falls in the ‘not really based on anyone specific but more a composite of other people and is just kind of a fun side character’ group should die. Especially given the circumstances: while pregnant with Pullo’s baby, she is poisoned by a jealous Gaia. But the abortifacient seems to go awry, and Eirene dies, instead of just miscarrying (or maybe that was Gaia’s intent all along; then again, the apothecary seemed assured that the potion would be fairly straightforward).

I liked Eirene, although she didn’t have much to do, storywise. She functioned as a vehicle to show that Pullo was capable of gentleness instead of just violence, but that character trait came out anyway, through his interaction with the children. And Pullo as a doting father was a lovely counterpoint to the darker goings-on of the show. But Eirene as a character was kind of quietly awesome- she was strong, hardworking, and inpatient with slaves who did not know their place or did not work as hard as they should have. This last is because she herself was a slave; along with that comes all kind of complicated character building. She holds other slaves to her own high standard–or perhaps takes a special small joy in being the one doling out beatings.

3. Julius Caesar

He would make a great Vulcan, admit it

"Can't wait to get home and kick back with my boy, Brutus!"

Caesar’s death is kind of a given that it would be on this list; after all, it’s the penultimate moment of the first season, and sets into motion almost all of the events of the second.

The event itself is ugly, and brutal. It probably also wasn’t clean or short enough, if you ask Caesar himself: a veteran of many wars, he probably knew how to kill a man more efficiently than the indolent, privileged members of the Senate who did him in. Additionally, what appears to be an epileptic attack occurs, which both prevents him from properly defending himself and reveals his condition to the whole of the senate. His last act is an attempt to hide his contorting face, as Brutus looks on in horror.

I’m sure the Liberatores (as they are historically known) thought they were doing Rome a favor, but considering the chaos that ensues in the wake of Caesar’s death, it’s clear he proved a very stabilizing force, both politically for the city, and personally for its inhabitants. Historians still fume and foam over this murder; was he a tyrant, or a visionary with Rome’s best interests at heart? Unless a secret diary is unearthed in which he declares himself God and discloses his plans to personally molest and murder every inhabitant of Rome, we’ll never know.

2. Marc Antony

"OMG im so hi lol!!!"

"What? I can't, I don't even. . . is that a boob hubcab?"

Somewhere in the depths of freshman level Psychology, I learned that while women are twice as likely to attempt suicide, men are five times more likely to succeed. My data may be skewed, but the logic is this: Women are more likely to make suicidal gestures, like cutting and pills, but men tend to choose more final methods, like blowing their heads off with shotguns, or throwing themselves off cliffs. This could also be complete bullshit, but it’s oen of those little interesting facts I filed away.

When Antony decides to off himself, it is after a long downward spiral of drugs and debauchery. Guilt-ridden over Caesar’s death, he makes a series of political missteps (and a few small victories) that eventually land him in Egypt, presiding over a court of sycophants and whores. He goes native, declaring himself the god Osiris to Cleopatra’s Isis, gets a boss snake tattoo, and decks himself out in the latest in celebritry Egyptian fashion, which looks kind of like something Liberace’s pool boy might have deemed ‘too much.’

Antony’s death was as much a character death as a theme death. The show afterwards felt less like a denouement than a few loose ends being tidied up, as nothing that occurs afterwards seems as important or interesting. Sure, Cleopatra had her big moment, and Lucieus Vorenus and Pullo had their wrap-up, but it felt a little tacked on. Antony killing himself, with Vorenus’s help, was the end of both the Caesare story arc and the direction of the show. It’s almost a shame it wasn’t the last, last minute of the show, as it would have been easier to accept the show’s cancellation, then. Showing us Octavian’s triumph and everything else that occurred jsut reminds we, the viewer, of everything that we WON’T get to see.

1. Cicero

EARS!

"I believe I shall go home and stupify myself with wine." -Actual quote from the show

You’re surprised, aren’t you?

Certainly, many characters had more exciting deaths than Cicero, but his was the most poignant to me.

Perhaps it was because Cicero, while a Patrician, was not as established within that class as other highborn Roman characters, and it always felt as if he were eternally chasing that brass ring, all the while struggling to maintain a moral center. Cicero had to work hard to get where he did. He isn’t courageous by his own admission, but still manages to stand up for what he believes in when he declares Antony a ‘wreck.’

Cicero’s death, when it comes, is a strange peak in the show. The pacing slows down a great deal; he observes a single bird overhead, and seems to be reflecting on not how little he has done with his life, but that it should end this way, in his garden, while his slave weeps hysterically in the background. The sun is bright and a soft wind is blowing, rustling the leaves of his peach tree. It’s a beautiful day, the rest of which he will not see.

Cicero’s resignation to his fate is only part of the greatness of this scene; the other half is Titus Pullo’s gentle, self-assured assistance as he helps walk Cicero through his last moments. He asks permission to take peaches from Cicero’s garden. It’s clear that Cicero is thinking of other, much loftier concepts, but the import of this small concession is not lost on him. In five minutes, they won’t belong to anyone, after all, and Pullo could do as he likes. He’s no mindless thug, come to humiliate Cicero, loot his house and commit violent murder; he’s simply carrying out orders.

The other interesting thing about this scene is its small flirtation with the concept of mortality. Cicero mentions that he will be immortalized in all the history books, and so will his killer. Pullo mistakenly takes this to mean that he will be immortalized, physically, before the matter is cleared up. Their names and deeds will live on, if nothing else.

Rome is a show I include in a group filed under ‘Great Humanist Dramas.’ Sure, many of the characters invoke the names of their gods as they go about their business, occasionally even putting importance into that god’s opinion of their actions, but ultimately it’s a show about humans.

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One Response to “Arbitrary List! Entry: The Five Best Deaths from HBO’s ‘Rome’”

  1. Liz September 20, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

    I like Cicero’s tunic in the photo above. Which episode is that?

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