The Pagans of 'Rome'

The HBO series, entering its second season, explores the Romans' oft-ignored devotion to their many different gods.

Rome on HBO
 '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 portray

Roman religion

not as a doomed prologue to

Christianity

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.



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"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.



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