Thursday, February 22, 2007

Death of the Republic

HBO did a nice job with the battle of Philippi and the events leading up to it in the most recent episode of "Rome." The battle scene is historically inaccurate in several respects, but at least they gave the viewer a feel for the scope of the largest battle in ancient history, and the inaccuracies enhance the dramatic qualities of the story. Also, I enjoyed the contrast between the tough soldier Antony and the cunning, non-soldier politician Octavian, and the small-talk between Brutus and Cassius over the latter's birthday is cute. As always, James Purefoy's Antony got off a snarky line, this time suggesting that Octavian might just end up peeing his pants during battle. I like the sort of closure they created by having Brutus's death visually parallel Caesar's assassination (Brutus in fact committed suicide after Antony broke his army). If Caesar's assassination gave hope to Brutus, Cassius, and the other custodians of the old order, Philippi marked the death of the Roman Republic, for better or worse. After the brutal proscriptions designed to pay for the battle and the battle itself, the only leaders left standing were Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus, who was soon pushed out of the picture by the ruthless, ambitious future emperor. Speaking of the proscriptions, the way they treated Cicero's killing was most excellent, even if it was factually inaccurate. It says a lot about the brutality of Rome that Pullo saw going out to Cicero's country villa to kill the man as an excuse for a big family picnic. That someone was going to die didn't much matter.

The period covered in the series--roughly 50 B.C. to 30 B.C.--is filled with several major "what-ifs." What if Pompey had defeated Caesar at Pharsalus? What if Cassius had prevailed on Brutus to have Antony killed along with Caesar? What if Brutus and Cassius had won at Philippi? What if Antony had won at Actium? It's arguable that it took all of these what-ifs coming out as they did to result in the powerful influence that the Roman Empire has had on the history of western civilization. I suppose it's also arguable that some general somewher along the line would have figured out that the republican form of government, as practiced in Rome, was simply inadequate to govern a far-flung empire, and would have set things up exactly as Octavian did. But it is fascinating to have so many major historical what-ifs crammed into such a short period.

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