Rome - Before It Was Catholic Print
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 28 April 2008 06:46
Blogging has gotten short shrift lately - between work and spring time clean -up in the garden and expanding the irrigation system (this time for a 800 sf wildflower bed, one of many I have to fill)

Oh - and there's one more thing: I've been watching Rome: the HBO series recommended by a historian friend of mine, who raves about how that the series gets so many Roman attitudes right.

Especially religion.

Set in the Rome of Julius Ceasar and Cicero, and Cato, and Brutus and Pompey, the series doesn't attempt to portray the political and military history of the period with meticulous accuracy - but it does go to great length to portray characters operating from within a truly Roman worldview and the result is both amazing and disturbing.

Imagine a world without a concept of "morality" as we understand it - because there is no idea of universal right and wrong. (There was duty - to the state, to one's family, according to one's status is life.) "Universal human rights?" Unknown. Your "rights" were linked inextricably to your status, not intrinsic to your humanity. A single all powerful, God of self=giving love who is utterly committed to your good, to your ultimate, eternal, happiness, to your salvation, and desires an intimate relationship with you? A God whose character and purposes are pure, incorrupt, and utterly trustworthy? Unimaginable.

Because "God" as we understand him does not exist. Life is saturated with religion but it has nothing to do with right or wrong. It is a religion of fear - because the gods are to out to get you. There are gods for everything - from war to door hinges - and human beings spend their lives constantly sacrificing to (and you have to do the ritual exactly right or its no good) and placating these gods cause if you don't, these powerful, self-absorbed, divine and semi=divine bastards are going to make you pay.

So you invoke the gods to protect your child (as one character does by having a bull slaughtered above and being drenched in the bull's blood) and to destroy your enemy (in one of the most chilling scenes, an elegant matron curses her enemies and promises the gods she will rejoice and sacrifice to them if her enemies are destroyed).

As the historical consultant to Rome points out over and over here, our contemporary western ideas of right and wrong and assumptions about the universe are the outgrowth of Judeo-Christian values which are profoundly different from those that Romans knew before Christ. He also pointed out that many viewers liked the idea of having the "burden" of Judeo-Christian morality lifted from them.

Which is titillating, I suppose, if you are sitting in your clean, bright, safe 21st century living room watching your 50 inch plasma TV.

But what if you were one of the millions of slaves that were the source of Roman wealth. One of the startling things about the series is watching the casual way in which patrician Romans strike and whip their slaves on a whim. Slaves were regarded as being without a soul and kindness to a slave was considered weakness. Slaves who were to testify in court were required by law to be tortured first. Read St. Paul's Letter to Philemon in light of that reality.

Or if you were happily married and your father or mother simply informed you that you would be divorced and married to someone else. Marriage was not a sacrament and the pater familia retained total power over children through out their lives.

Husbands could beat their wives and children whenever they felt like it - to death even - if they were sufficiently displeased. (One main character, Niobe, lives in terror that her soldier husband will find out that she had an affair after being told that her husband had died in battle. Because as she tells her daughter, if he finds out, he will kill us all.) Now re-read Ephesians 4 and see how it sounds.

They tell of a actual letter written by a Roman man to his wife in which he ends matter of factly with this words: "About the child you are about to bear. If it is a boy, keep it. If it is a girl, expose it."

The cumulative force of watching human beings wrestling with the burden of life in a world devoid of the gospel and all it has generated over 2,000 years is stunning.

One of the two main characters (both Roman soldiers mentioned by name by Julius Caesar) is Lucius Vorenus. His is a poignant character. Although Vorenus is a dour, hard man, he is also naturally deeply religious and seems to be longing for a God really worth worshiping and a universe larger than the one he knows. I was irresistibly reminded of the Advent passages: "a people walking in darkness have seen a great light." How i longed to tell Vorenus that there was so much more.

Rome helps you sense in a new way the beauty, the power, the impact, the compelling quality of the gospel when first heard by men and women living in such a world.

It also illuminates anew the extraordinary willingness of the Father to give his son to and the Son to agree to be born into such a world.

The darkness of post-modern post-Christendom is not the darkness of the pre-Christian world. Many Catholic commentators have noted this but we tend to assume that the darkness we deal with is far worse.

Watch Rome and then we'll talk.

(Note: This is not a show for children. There is lots of sex, nudity, and violence and it can be hard even on adult stomachs and spirits. It is beautifully photographed and acted, compelling but dark as was the world it depicts.)