Politics & Policy

Rome’s Good Because It’s Bad

The pre-Christian is not to be missed.

The most pro-Christian show on television doesn’t have a single Christian character in it — and it couldn’t have. Rome, the hit series now in its second season on HBO, is a surprising affirmation of the Western tradition. While it is packed with sex and violence, its (probably unintended) message is that Rome was desperate for Christianity. 

#ad#Although recognized by critics as one of the best new shows on television, less frequently noted is how the show rebukes those who would reject the West’s Christian heritage and go back to “neo-pagan” life. In fact, Rome illustrates that historians like Christopher Dawson were correct in emphasizing the revolutionary effect Christianity had on the pagan Roman world.

The show is set in the closing days of the Roman republic; the first season ended with the assassination of Julius Caesar on the floor of the senate by his friends Brutus and Cassius. The new season is concerned with the emergence of the Empire under Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, who becomes Caesar Augustus, reigning reigned from about 27 B.C. to 19 A.D. Tracking their more famous fellow Romans are (fictional) soldiers Lucius Verenus and Titus Pullo, whose lives allow the directors to explore sides of Roman life not often seen in the history books.

Three features stand out, amidst the thrilling story lines, well-crafted battle scenes, and first-rate acting. The first is the casual cruelty of the Roman world, seen especially in its treatment of slaves. Rome was, after all, a slave society, and slaves had no rights — indeed, almost no recognized existence except as property. They are treated like commodities (such as when Atia, a noblewoman and Octavian’s mother, offers her female slaves to Marc Antony, with whom she is having an affair) and are routinely brutalized (as shown in a sequence set in a slave farm where Verenus goes to find his children). The show treats this matter of factly, not for shock value or with a false sentimentality. Life in the ancient world could be rough for everyone; it was just worse for slaves.

The Romans did develop a legal culture that is the basis of the Western legal system, including notions of natural law and rights, but that system was harsh: Testimony from slaves in court, for example, was not admitted absent torture. It had not yet been enlightened through the principles of equity that would make their appearance with the Catholic Church’s canon law and admonitions of charity.

The brutality towards slaves evidenced in the show is echoed in its depiction of the family. Wives and children had almost as low a status as slaves, and again the show portrays harsh realities without exaggeration or superficiality. Husbands could, and did, beat their wives with impunity, their children were only extensions of the father’s will, and the wife was clearly not the equal partner. Marriage was a religious event, but not, as it would later become, a sacrament. Women without husbands would become destitute, be sold into slavery, or become prostitutes. 

Finally, there is religion. Rome is saturated with it — there are prayers and oaths, offerings made to deities known and unknown, and religious processions and priestly orders. A pagan world, in other words, is not one in which we control the gods, as trendy leftists suppose, but in which we are ever at risk of offending some god for failure to make the right offering or sacrifice. Moreover, these gods rarely provide a guide to conduct or right behavior — they are inscrutable.

There may be some quibbles with historical accuracy, but in the main the show has it right. Rome was not all marble columns and noble rhetoric, and those wishing to reject the West’s Christian heritage should take a hard look at what that world was like before the arrival of Christianity.

Gerald J. Russello is the editor of The University Bookman.

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