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.)
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.)