On the Grandeur that is Rome

Anyone who is not watching HBO’s Rome needs to start watching it, now. My favorite moment in this series and even perhaps in all tv, is in the episode 7, Pharsalus. The army of Pompey Magnus has been crushed by Caesar’s, his friends have abandoned him and gone off to surrender, and he and his family are taken captive en route to presumably safe refuge in Egypt by centurion Lucius Vorenus and legionnaire Titus Pullo, of Caesar’s 13th regiment. Vorenus is a stalwart Catonian and Republican; part of the fascinating complexity of his character lies in the escalating friction between his own belief in the sanctity of the Republic (the great state, in this era of pervasive religiosity, is not merely a secular achievement, but an enterprise protected and sanctioned by the gods themselves), and his duty as a soldier to remain loyal to and aid Julius Caesar in his campaign against Pompey, an act treacherous to the Roman Republic and thus, an act which must end in Caesar’s ascension as dictator. More intriguing even is when one considers that Vorenus, a poor freeman who lives in the worst slum of Rome, would not find his own life greatly influenced one way or the other by a transference of government from republic to tyranny. Most other Republican loyalists and opponents of Caesar have ancient family reputations to protect and patrician status and riches, safe all these generations under the Republic, to preserve from threatening change. A powerful patrician in the Roman Republic did not have to regard any one person as his superior; there were no “kings”—at most there were heavily celebrated and powerful generals who were given special rights by virtue of how many barbarians they had conquered, as in the cases of, well, Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus. One can imagine how vexing was the idea of suddenly having to kneel to a king when one had one’s whole life lived as a king in one’s own circle. Vorenus, however, has no personal power to lose and still mourns the clearly imminent demise of the Republic. Having no material “stake” in its preservation, his is a pure Republicanism, truly on principle rather than for personal gain, and possibly the only example of this we see on the show.
Back to the story. In a private moment together, Vorenus asks the general and prisoner Pompey how this sad state of affairs could have come to be; “Surely Pompey Magnus had Caesar at great disadvantage…” (though Vorenus knows to whom he is speaking, he respects the great man’s wish to conceal his identity and plays along with Pompey’s insistence that he’s a humble traveling merchant). For a moment, pride at hearing of his past strategic prowess flashes across Pompey’s face in a smile too genuine and immediate to be suppressed, ”Yes, I did, I did…it seemed impossible to lose…” The smile fades, “that’s always a bad sign….” Vorenus notices but does not remark upon Pompey’s slip. Pompey recalls, wet eyed, his early mentorship of Ceasar and draws on the ground with a stick the recent decisive battle between him and his former protégé. In silent flashes across his face we see his admiration for the victor, his frustration at his mens’ retreat, humiliation and fear at having to now beg for the safekeeping of his wife and children (for indeed, a general knows how seldom such pleas are honored), and most moving, recognition of the immensity of the consequences of his downfall, far greater than the mere defeat of a famous general and his army. “That is how Pompey Magnus was defeated,…and how the Republic died…” A horrible and sad understanding passes bewteen the two men before Vorenus, stunned, stumbles off to the camp fire and leaves Pompey trembling on the beach.
In a cast of excellent actors, Kenneth Cranham’s Pompey is so masterfully embodied that even in a scene lacking violence, nudity, or good-looking people insulting each other, I was totally riveted. Cranham looks as W.H. Auden might have looked had a giant thumb descended on his head and squooshed it just a little, displaced body matter filling out a few, but not all of the wrinkles. He deserves an extra large Emmy for his performance, and I am very sorry that Pompey Magnus was beheaded upon arrival in Egypt (oh, the hazards of travel) by one of his own former soldiers and a Roman, as this pesky historical fact (according to the BBC) prevents him from returning in future episodes. His defeat and death made me wonder:
Would you rather live a successful, happy life and die a horrible death, horrible not only for its violence but for the realization in your last moments that you are horribly betrayed and defeated, as Pompey was?
Live a pretty wretched life all around, full of violence, betrayals, dishonesty, failure, and defeat, and somehow, through a miracle, resolve your life on your deathbed in a positive, even joyous revelation, and literally, die happy?
p.s. A friend remarked on the title of this post, “On the Grandeur that is Rome” that I sound pompous because no one uses words like grandeur, and nobody inverts the nominative case with ‘to be’, or whatever it’s called when you say “the (descriptive noun) that is (proper noun). However, I didn’t just make it up in a moment of unrestraint; I lifted it from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy Land!
Although I guess quoting nineteenth century poets makes me even more pompous. Oh, well.
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9 Responses to On the Grandeur that is Rome

  1. I’m tickled pink that I can get “Grandeur” and “Boobies” in the same place.Nice post. How historically accurate do you think the show is?

  2. Syd says:

    I think the first option is the better one. Perhaps not from your own perspective but from the perspective of general goodness in the universe. I’ve heard good things about the show, I’ll have to check it out.

  3. Martina says:

    Having recently an existential moment myself, I too have thought about this question. I would have to say that I would prefer the first option, provided that it would allow me to spread happiness to the most people. Although one cannot deny the dramatic power of a deathbed redemption…About the pomposity of your writing, well…bullocks to anyone who despises it. You write like a 19th century consumptive romantic, and I LOVE IT. In the age of “me, me, me” self-referential contemporary writing, its refreshing and enchanting. BRAVO! Here’s to the resplendence and sublimity that is your writing…Love,MP.S. By the way, I’ve received your letter, and have replied in haste.

  4. proclus says:

    Poe isn’t pompous: I always thought the heavy-handed plodding of his scansion made him quite vulgar. His lines fairly beg to be red with artificial accentuation–iambic tetrameter indeed! Also, I like him, which means he can’t be too sophisticated.

  5. proclus says:

    Moreover, I’m glad to see that the link below your picture that purpotedly allows one to “view full size” is a vast overstatement: People would be petrified.

  6. Sorry no free Sony electronics to offer you Larissa, but I do have this question: Why only two choices?? 🙂

  7. Indri says:

    Third choice being to lead a just so-so life and die slowly but painlessly?Isn’t that what a lot of us do already?As for “grandeur”, Larissa, for god’s sakes, use it whenver possible. We all must fight the terrible shrinkage of our language.

  8. M. says:

    A) Larissa, take it from one who should know, you could not be pompous if you tried. At best (worst?), if you are a good actor, you might perhaps feign pomposity convincingly.B) For “indri:””If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, it remains that we retard what we cannot repel; that we palliate what we cannot cure. Life may be lengthened by care, though death cannot be ultimately defeated; tongues, like governments, have a natural tendency to degeneration; we have long preserved our constitution; let us make some struggle for our language.” –Samuel Johnson

  9. Larissa says:

    Thanks, everyone! I love comments! but….who is “m.” ??

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