The Pagans of 'Rome'
The HBO series, entering its second season, explores the Romans' oft-ignored devotion to their many different gods.
BY: Ted Phillips
'Rome,' Season Two: Watch Clips
Reading Caesar's Will
"All Violence Will Cease"
If the past is a foreign country, then ancient religion may be its most exotic locale. The HBO series "Rome," which returns for its second season on Sunday, is hardly "Fodor's Guide to Paganism," but by venturing off some well-worn cinematic paths, the show has given the worship of the gods a generous treatment in a genre dominated by stories of gladiators and the advent of Christ.
The creators of the serial drama, which focuses on the power struggles during the last days of the Roman Republic in the first century B.C.E., wanted to portrayRoman religion
not as a doomed prologue toChristianity
but as a vibrant and meaningful part of everyday life.
In an illustrative scene from the series' first season, the rough-hewn soldier Titus Pullo, who is imprisoned for insubordination, makes a rather pathetic prayer.
"Forculus, if you be the right god for the business here, I call on you to help me," Pullo says. "If you will open this door I will kill for you a fine white lamb, or failing that, if I couldn't get a good one at a decent price then six pigeons."
Packed into Pullo's lines is more than comic relief. Given that several Roman deities preside over the different parts of the door--Limentinus is guardian of the threshold, the goddess Cardea over the hinge--Forculus, who presides over the door itself, seems like a safe bet, but Pullo hedges it a little, just in case.
Conversations with the Gods
As Rome expanded through conquest, so did its pantheon. Its religion was not a belief system so much as a series of cults dedicated to different gods who were expected to help people out in the here and now--if properly worshipped. Major gods who were believed to be essential to the success of the nation, like Mars or Jupiter, were the province of state-run priestly colleges but privately people worshipped their own gods. On all levels of society, Romans looked for signs of the gods' intentions and sought their favor whether it be for a business venture or an act of legislation.
Pullo's offering is not an act of ethics or repentance. A Roman god wants recognition and respect, so Pullo negotiates sacrifices rather than promising to reform his behavior and stay out of jail in the future. And the pigeons? Well, there's historical evidence that reneging on a promise of sacrificial offerings is a serious affair. An inscribed stone from the third century C.E. in the Roman province of Asia, modern-day Turkey, records that a woman couldn't afford to fulfill a promised sacrifice of a bull to a god, so she offers the stone instead.
"People were in constant conversation with the gods," says Bruno Heller, the show's co-creator, head writer and one of its executive producers. "Switching allegiances from one god to the other or trying to find out what god is applicable to the situation makes a difference to people's behavior and morality when they don't have that overarching superego telling them what's right and wrong. It makes for, in many ways, a freer and more liberated society, but on the other hand a far more brutal and cruel one."
The first season of the series told the story of the six years from Julius Caesar's defeat of Gaul to the fall of the Roman Republic and Caesar's rise to dictatorship and his assassination in 44 B.C.E. If that seems like a lot for 12 episodes, the second season compresses an even greater span of time--the following 14 years, during which Caesar's adopted son Octavian eliminates his political opponents and becomes Augustus, Rome's first emperor.
A key to Augustus' consolidation of power was religion, and he framed his struggle with rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra as a fight between the gods of Rome and the gods of Egypt.
Departing from traditional portrayals of the ancient superpower going back to Shakespeare, which tended to focus on the intrigues of the upper classes, "Rome" splits its narrative between the power brokers of the period and the daily lives of two lower-class soldiers, Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.
Daily life for Romans included a strong measure of religion, and Heller says it was clear early in his research for the show that its omnipresence meant that matters of faith had to play a major role in the series.
"You couldn't really explain individual psychology and character without explaining something of their sense of religion and their cosmological sense," Heller says. "If you think you're going to disappear into nothingness when you die, you behave very different from someone who believes that they may be wafted up to the Elysian Fields if they please the gods."
Violence, Cruelty, and Spiritual Transformation
Acts of violence and cruelty pave the way for the spiritual transformations in the series' second season. Vorenus, a pious if guileless conservative, loses his family and embraces the gods of the underworld. In the first season the accidental knocking over of a statue of Janus, yet another god of doorways as well as the god of beginnings, at a party celebrating a new business venture is cause for despair and penance. In contrast, in the second season he deliberately smashes a statue of the goddess Concordia in a display of sacrilege.
Headed the opposite direction is the amoral Jewish horse trader and henchman Timon, who slowly embraces the ethical tenets of Judaism when his zealous brother pays him a visit from Judea. His brother's influence comes to a head while Timon tortures a rival of his patron and discovers there is a limit to how much brutality he is willing to put another human being through.