The Strangeness That Was Rome?

Gary Kamiya lauds the HBO miniseries Rome both for its “extraordinary attention to historically accurate detail” and for its willingness to “depict an alien worldview, one untouched by Christianity and the moral ethos introduced by that strange little sect.” “It requires both historical scholarship and a certain imaginative audacity,” Kamiya opines, “to create characters who don’t share some of our most basic assumptions and beliefs.” (Conical hat tip to LRC.)

HBO's Rome But it seems to me that Kamiya overstates the divide between Christian and pre-Christian society. Anyone who’s read, say, Cicero’s De Officiis knows that pre-Christian moral ideals could be as high-minded and pacific as Christian ones; and anyone who’s studied history knows that the real-life conduct of rulers and warriors in Christian societies could be as sanguinary as that of their pagan predecessors. As for Kamiya’s quaint assumption that husbands nowadays no longer kill their wives over suspected infidelity, I can only wonder what planet he’s been living on.

I’m also rather skeptical of Kamiya’s assumption that Rome offers a realistic picture of Roman society. In fact the show doesn’t deal much with ordinary Romans at all; it’s pretty much all about the rulers, the only commoners being either actual criminals or else folks of various classes drawn into the rulers’ wars and intrigues. A show that chronicles the doings of Rome’s most ruthlessly violent class during one of the most ruthlessly violent periods of Roman history is not going to be the most reliable of guides to the Roman mind.

Kamiya makes much of the show’s unrestrained sexuality as an indication of Roman mores. But Roman official sexual morality was actually fairly severe, even puritanical; having sex (even with one’s legal spouse) in full nudity, or during the day, or at night with the light on, was widely regarded as shockingly licentious. Did private conduct conform invariably to this code? Well, no; but from the show you’d never guess there was any such code.

It’s perhaps odd that Kamiya says nothing about Roman acceptance of slavery, which some might think the most striking difference between Roman society and our own. But given what treatment of blacks was legally tolerated in our own country just half a century ago, I don’t think the modern world can pride itself too much on its moral superiority.

As for Kamiya’s praise of Rome’s historical accuracy, I imagine that the ghosts of Atia and Cleopatra might have some objections to their bizarre portrayals as scheming sadistic murderer and drug-addled nymphomaniac respectively. (And even Marc Antony would have some grounds for complaint – he was an obnoxious jerk, yes, but not that over-the-top obnoxious.)

4 Responses to The Strangeness That Was Rome?

  1. Bob February 14, 2007 at 4:50 pm #

    The portrayal in Rome that bothered me the most was its image of Cato the Younger as a decrepit, foolish, and pitiable old man. I always picture him as the incorruptible republican defiant to the end with a heroic suicide. Of course my view owes more to Lucian, Addison, and lost cause mythology than reality I’m sure, but it’s still a more satisfying and romantic image to hold, a Roman Wolfe Tone or Edmund Ruffin.

    But despite Rome’s problems I thought the first season was enjoyable enough. As a side note has anyone seen the 2002 miniseries Julius Caesar? I am intrigued by the idea of Christopher Walken as Cato.


  2. Administrator February 14, 2007 at 6:24 pm #

    I agree with you about Cato in Rome; I’d been forgetting him since he’s not in season 2. Your vision of Cato may be romanticised, but if Cato had been like the guy in Rome he would never have gotten romanticised.

    I’ve seen the 2002 Julius Caesar; Walken was ok as Cato. But that Caesar was awful. I mean, he was a perfectly fine actor, but he was so hopelessly miscast it was like casting Woody Allen to play Hulk Hogan or vice versa. The Rome Caesar, by contrast, I thought was excellent.

  3. Administrator February 14, 2007 at 6:25 pm #

    By the way, I think Rome‘s Octavian (both of them) and Cicero are pretty well cast too.

  4. Rad Geek February 20, 2007 at 7:42 am #

    It must surely take a bold and original understanding of civil war and imperial-era Rome to portray the whole of that society as an endless parade of debauchery, intrigue, spectacle and gore.

    Nobody’s ever done that before.

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