‘Rome’: Love between strangers

Pillow talk alters the course of an empire.

Just another gripping, unexpected hour from television’s greatest historical drama.

In “Egeria,” the sixth episode of the first season of HBO’s “Rome” (original airdate Oct. 2, 2005), written by John Milius and Bruno Heller and directed by Alan Poul, Atia (Polly Walker) overplays her hand.

The cunning schemer gets Mark Antony (James Purefoy) in her bed, again, and tries to convince him to betray Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) and throw his support to Pompey (Kenneth Cranham).

And Mark Antony was considering just this, as Pompey, improbably enough, has Caesar on the ropes, and Caesar desperately needs Mark Antony to hasten to Greece with the 13th Legion.

Hearing Atia – Caesar’s own niece – so cravenly lay out the political advantages suddenly crystallizes everything for Mark Antony. He’s appalled at himself for even spending a day to think about it – and he gets slap-happy with Atia for suggesting it.

“I had not realized until now what a wicked old harpy you really are.”

Is that a no, then?

Just like that, he, Vorenus (Kevin McKidd), Pullo (Ray Stevenson), and the rest of the 13th Legion are off to Greece to back Caesar.

The best scene of the hour comes a bit earlier, and it’s a complicated bit of business between Pullo, Niobe (Indira Varma), and her sister Lyde (Esther Hall), well worth a re-watch.

We know from some exposition that Lyde has been bereft since her husband Evander “disappeared” two months earlier. (Pullo killed him and tossed his body into the sewer waters in the previous episode.) Niobe has suspected, correctly, that Pullo is aware of her affair with Evander, but Pullo has feigned ignorance.

Pullo has been forced to listen to a drunken Vorenus rant about his love for Niobe and how Lyde is just sucking up the air in his home. Now the lug has decided to do something about it.

Listen to the man who murdered your husband. (Photo: HBO)
Listen to the man who murdered your husband. (Photo: HBO)

He tells Lyde that he called on his connections in the criminal underworld and learned that Evander is dead due to his gambling debts. But Pullo is truly talking to Niobe, directing his message to her even as he “consoles” Lyde.

“It’s not so bad. You’ve still got people that love you. Look to them, eh? … Forget Evander. Forget the past.”

Niobe gets the message.

It’s a terrific bit of acting from all involved.

Niobe and Vorenus, awkwardly at first, find their way back under the sheets.

You think your mother embarrasses you?

Atia demands to know if Octavian (Max Pirkis) has “penetrated” anyone – a conversation held in front of Octavia (Kerry Condon), Pullo, and several slaves.

Pullo sorts it out by taking him to an upscale brothel, where Octavian meets the Egeria of the episode title, a young woman (Francesca Fowler) from another land who lost her entire family. Octavian isn’t interested in chatting; he just wants to get this unpleasant task over with.

Interestingly, Atia doesn’t seem to care about the gender of Octavian’s partner, nor does anyone blink an eye in the brothel when the madam brings out some boys with the girls. Were the Romans truly this liberal? As the show is laying the groundwork for the show’s one same-sex affair – between Servilia (Lindsay Duncan) and Octavia, I have some research to get to.

Someone's having fun needling her son about his virginity. (Photo: HBO)
Someone’s having fun needling her son about his virginity. (Photo: HBO)

The hour has one of the most abrupt cliffhangers of any episode, as a quick cut finds Pullo and Vorenus on the deck of a ship being lashed by a horrific storm. As Vorenus scolds Pullo for doubting the gods’ protection, the ship sinks!

Random dialogue:

Vorenus (drunk and crying into his cup about Niobe): “Maybe I should beat her, d’you think?”

Pullo: “Oh, I don’t know. That only works if you keep at it. A good thrashing once or twice a day until they’re docile – but then they don’t look so good.”

Mark Antony: “I shall be a good politician – even if it kills me – or if it kills anyone else for that matter.”

Caesar (on his startling change in fortune): “Now the cat barks at the dog, and Pompey is chasing me.”

Atia (threatening Octavian): “You will penetrate someone today, or I will burn your wretched books in the yard.”

Pullo (after hearing the price at the brothel): “The girl better fuck him like Helen of Troy with her ass on fire, or I’ll know the reason why.”

Next: “Pharsalus”

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