What was perhaps the most pro-Christian show on television did not have a single Christian character in it¯and there was no way it could have. Rome , the hit series that has just completed its second (and for now final) season on the cable channel HBO, turned out to be a surprising affirmation of the Western religious tradition. While it is packed with sex and violence, its message¯intended or not¯is that the Roman world was desperate for Christianity.
Neo-pagan life before Christianity does not come off well. Against a Gibbon-centered historical approach that placed primary responsibility for the decline of the classical world at Christianity’s rise and the concomitant loss of traditional Roman virtues, historians such as Christopher Dawson argued earlier in the last century that Christianity had a revolutionary, and positive, effect on the pagan Roman world. It turned slaves into serfs, wedding contracts into sacramental marriages, and placed limits on the unjust use of authority. The show’s depiction of the commonplaces of Roman life¯even if a bit exaggerated at times, in keeping with the Rome-as-soap-opera marketing¯gives us the reasons why.
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 second season was concerned with the emergence of the empire under Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, who becomes Caesar Augustus and who reigned as de facto emperor from about 27 B.C. to his death 19 A.D; his rule ended the republic and brought about the Roman Empire. The series ends with a triumphal procession of Augustus after his return from defeating the forces of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in the Battle of Actium.
Along the way we see the fighting between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus for control of Rome, the death of Cicero, the Battle of Philippi, where Marcus and Cassius are defeated by the combined forces of Octavian and Marc Antony before their own falling out over, among other things, Antony’s affair with Cleopatra (at the time he was married to Octavian’s sister). Tracking their more famous fellow Romans are the centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who are actual historical figures mentioned in passing in Caesar’s Gallic Wars , but about whom little else is known. Their more normal lives allow the directors to explore sides of Roman life not often seen in the history books.
Three features stand out amid the thrilling story lines. The first is slavery. The casual cruelty of the Roman world as it is portrayed here is striking, and this is especially so 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 everywhere in the show, sometimes as trusted servants (such as Cicero’s amanuensis), sometimes treated like commodities (such as when Atia, Julius Caesar’s niece and also Octavian’s mother, offers her female slaves to Marc Antony, with whom she is having an affair) and sometimes just as the constant source of labor and menial service. They are routinely brutalized (as shown in a sequence set in a slave farm to which Vorenus goes to find his children). The show treats this aspect of Roman life matter of factly and not for shock value or with a false sentimentality. Life in the ancient world could be rough for anyone; it was just worse for slaves.
This is not to deny that Roman law is one of the great inheritances of the West or to demean the real virtues that Rome bequeathed to the West. The Romans did develop a legal culture that included notions of natural law and rights, and our language and procedures still echo their Roman forebears. But that system, we should not fail to remember, was harsh. Testimony from slaves in court, for example, was not admitted absent torture, a fact which is noted in one particularly gruesome scene. The legal system, in other words, 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 second notable feature of the show is its treatment of family. Husbands could, and did, beat their wives with impunity, and children, even into adulthood, were only extensions of the father’s will. Roman fathers could choose not to recognize their offspring and could expose them to the elements or offer them to strangers (often slave traders). In the first episode, when Vorenus returns after years campaigning with Caesar, his wife (who had thought him dead) hides from him an illegitimate child; otherwise, she says to her other children, "He will kill us all"¯including the child, with, we are given to understand, hardly any risk of punishment. And indeed, by the end of the series, Vorenus does discover the child and goes at his wife in a murderous rage.
The portrayals of the upper classes are no better. Octavian marries his sister to Marc Antony for reasons of politics, rather than let him be with his mother, and orders another woman to divorce her husband in order to become his wife. There are exceptions to this otherwise depressing treatment: Vorenus and his wife do have reconciliation after his return, and Pullo marries a slave (whom he first frees), but the overall impression is one of family as a function of power.
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. One of the strengths of the show is that, as with other aspects of daily life, the naturalness of religious belief is treated soberly and as a normal way to behave. But these gods rarely provide a guide to conduct or right behavior. At most, they serve to confirm the honor and shame-driven culture of the time. When Vorenus’ daughter is forced to work as a prostitute before she is rescued, Vorenus brings them before a priest to cleanse her and the other children of their shame. And, of course, there is always suicide as an honorable way out of dishonorable situations, a recourse several characters take during the series. A pagan world, in other words, is not one in which we control the gods, as trendy neo-pagans suppose, but a world in which we are ever at risk of offending some god for failure to make the right offering or sacrifice.
Some may quibble with the historical accuracy of this or that detail, but in the main the show has it right. The picture presented by Rome is provocative, troubling, and at times downright strange. Despite how well we know the story of the fall of Rome, and despite our clear debts to the Romans as a constituent part of our own culture, they are not us and we are not them, in large measure because of the interposition of Christianity. Indeed, the most recognizable people in the series are perhaps the Jewish characters, whose ethical structure is clearly recognizable as our own from the brief glimpses we are given of it.
From the account the series presents of life in Rome, it is no wonder that the message of Christianity, building perhaps on other mystery cults emerging around this time, would be so appealing to slaves, women, and others whose participation in Roman life was partial at best. As Walter Pater wrote in 1885, the revelation of the Christian message must have been seen as fresh air in a suffocating world: "Penetrating the whole atmosphere, touching everything around with its peculiar sentiment, it seemed to make all this visible mortality, death itself, more beautiful than any fantastic dream of old mythology had ever hoped to make it; and that, in a simple sincerity of feeling about a supposed actual fact. The thought, the word, Pax¯Pax Tecum! ¯was put forth everywhere, with images of hope, snatched sometimes even from that jaded pagan world, which had really afforded men so little of it from first to last." This breath of air was revolutionary, and we should do well to remember it in the context of our own resurgences into barbarism in the areas, for example, of family life and treatment of the poor.
All this is not, of course, to say that in some respects the ancient world improved immediately upon the rise of Christianity, or that, for example, marriages, even into the modern age, were not done for convenience or for reasons of power politics. But the point is that the intellectual and moral climate that made any improvement possible would not have been possible at all within the classical pagan world.
These days, some contend that a world without Christian restraints would be more egalitarian, less violent, and more individualistic. But for those with a historical sense, Rome shows that another alternative is more likely. The classical world was not all marble columns and noble rhetoric. It was a world where the strong ruled, and those who could not conquer were themselves conquered. Far from being egalitarian, the only clear rule was inequality: between masters and slaves, husbands and wives, or plebeians and patricians. Those wishing to reject the West’s Christian heritage should take a hard look at what that world was like.