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.

"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.

In creating "Rome," the BBC, which is co-producing the show, found a historical consultant within its own ranks: Jonathan Stamp, who produces historical documentaries for the network and earned his graduate and undergraduate degrees in classical studies at Oxford University. At first, Stamp occasionally vetted scripts, but before long he was on call at the elaborate sets at the Cinecetta film studios in Rome, helping to recreate ancient rituals.

"[Roman] religion was very heavily reliant upon ritual and the ritual repetition of certain activities, rather than being based on a single book or a set of beliefs," Stamp says. "When you combine pictorial and written evidence you can reconstruct pretty faithfully what a Roman sacrifice would have looked like."

Historical Liberties
While staging a sacrifice in the first season to the goddess Cybele, also called Magna Mater or the Great Mother, Stamp referred to a photocopy of the ancient poet Lucretius' "On the Nature of Things."

In that scene, men in skirts with red and green headdresses flagellate themselves in a ceremony that leads up to the cutting of a bull's throat on a raised pit and blood gushing down onto a worshipper below. Lucretius' description of how a "tubed pipe excites their maddened minds" and how "hollow cymbals, tight-skinned tambourines resound around to bangings of their hands," ends up on the screen.

But as with many of the show's recreations, that scene is a composite of historical sources: Lucretius was a contemporary of Caesar but the description of the sacrifice was not.

"We took a tiny bit of liberty, for sure, because we don't have a description of the blooding of the bull and the raised pit until about 180 A.D.," says Stamp. "But I think we we're pretty close."

Despite the efforts of the show's creators, Prof. Paul Harvey-- head of the Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Penn State University--says "Rome" fails to communicate the era's religious complexity to a modern audience steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

"There is insufficient attention about how Romans transacted with divinity in the private sphere as opposed to the public sphere," he says. "There's no real appreciation that ancient Italians had a kind of bipolar attitude to religion, that what is very important is a regional or local, but above all family, cult."

Gods of State vs. Household Gods
That complexity of a religion that was really a collection of independent cults is hard to communicate in what is, after all, a TV drama. In addition to worshipping the gods of the state, Romans worshipped "Lares," or household gods individual to their own homes, as well as local gods. In a Roman home one would find a lararium, a shrine with small statues of the household gods.

"What is more sacred than each citizen's home?" the republic's greatest orator Cicero wrote. "It houses his altars, his hearths... his sacrifices: It is the place of his devotions and ritual ceremonies."

The Lares appear in the series but mostly as part of the scenery, like in Vorenus' home.

"You don't want to make a pointed issue of them because they would have been just part of the house," Heller says. "Like the vacuum cleaner, they were a cleansing force. Something that is ubiquitous and people don't even think about."

The show's creators also had to bow to the pragmatics of TV production in the 21st century. One important and well-known festival was not included in "Rome" largely because it was too costly: The Lupercalia, which traditionally fell on February 15, was a fertility ritual the show scripted and then scrapped.

"We had Mark Antony rushing through the streets in a wolf skin whipping fertile young women, but it was not to be," Heller says. "If you're going to get those rituals right, you need to do them grandly, because that would have been an amazing spectacle and we didn't want to do it half-assed with a couple of guys running around in circles."

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