Rome doesn’t fall.
It is abandoned.
That’s the devastating take-away from “An Owl in a Thornbush,” the third episode in HBO’s “Rome,” written by series co-creator Bruno Heller and directed by Michael Apted (original airdate Sept. 11, 2005).
With Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) advancing upon the city, Pompey (Kenneth Cranham) does the math and comes up wanting.
There just aren’t enough men to defend the city.
So he decides to retreat.
Cato (Karl Johnson) is disgusted with him: “You have lost Rome without unsheathing your sword!”
In the dead of night, Pompey, his family, and his supporters sneak out of the city.
Pompey’s last order to his “loyal” men is to raid the treasury.
That they do – for themselves.
The one man beholden to Pompey wins a blade in the gut and is dumped to die on the street.
Caesar charges Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Pullo (Ray Stevenson) with nailing a proclamation declaring his good intentions toward the people of Rome on the door of the Senate.
Vorenus thinks it’s a fool’s mission, doomed to get them killed, and he’s already morose about the state of his marriage.
He’s so desperate, he turns to Pullo – of all men – for advice on women.
“I love her. I require that she love me also, else I am merely her slave, and I cannot tolerate that,” Vorenus says.
Pullo tells him women love it when you present them the warm, beating heart of an enemy.
“Women say they don’t like it, but they do,” he adds. “It makes them wet as October.”
Back in Rome, Atia (Polly Walker) goes from hated pariah – the mob tries to break into her palatial estate – to protector – for a fee – for those remaining.
She reaches her breaking point with Octavia (Kerry Condon) sneaking out to be with her ex-husband Glabius (Roberto Purvis). She orders her lovestruck henchman Timon (Lee Boardman) to kill the man.
Octavia is bereft.
Brutus (Tobias Menzies) can’t imagine betraying his friend Caesar. He, ultimately, decides to flee Rome: “The republic is more important than any friendship.”
He is horrified his mother, Servilia (Lindsay Duncan), will not accompany him. She has waited eight years for Caesar’s return and will not leave now, no matter the risk.
Both Pullo and Vorenus enjoy changes in fortune.
Pullo finds that cart of stolen Roman gold and the captive German slave girl attached to it – Eirene (Chiara Mastalli).
Vorenus bares his heart to Niobe, acknowledging he married her when she was but 13 summers old. All he knows is soldiering, but he loves her, and he will change, if she allows it.
Niobe wavers, cries, and starts to tell him the truth, the truth about their “grandson,” truth that could get her and her children killed.
“I’ve not been – ”
Vorenus embraces her. “The past is gone. We start over.”
But the past is never over, is it? That’s one thing we all learn from “Rome.”
HBO missed a golden opportunity for a “Rome” spinoff just following Vorenus and Pullo on the road.
Late at night, lying around the campfire, Pullo wonders what the stars are.
As if he were addressing a child, Vorenus patiently explains they are holes in the celestial sphere in which the light of the heavens shines. He estimates they are hundreds of miles away.
Pullo bets a man could reach up there if he grabbed a giant bird.
Hell, HBO could’ve had gold with a show centered on Atia and Timon.
“Is that perfume you’re wearing?” she asks.
“Just a dab,” he admits.
“It’s horrid. Horseshit suits you much better.”
Next: “Stealing from Saturn”