The Gods

Rome continues its drive to become the most religious show on television (or at least, on DVD – season two is finally out). [SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT.] Vorenus curses his children to Hades, and seconds later, they are kidnapped and sold into slavery. Later, Vorenus blasphemes the gods for the sake of worldly influence, and within weeks, all around him is war and terrible solitude. Later still, his friend Pullo, who is genuinely (if simply) pious, says the gods are tricking him, leading him back to Rome to see Vorenus when Vorenus isn’t there. But who IS there? A woman who tells him that Vorenus’ children are not dead, but enslaved – so there is hope for the despairing Vorenus. Servilla is captured by Atia while she is praying to a Mother Goddess. Atia tortures Servilla and promises to kill her, but throughout, Servilla continues to pray. And eventually, she is delivered. The list goes on. There are varying attitudes toward religion – some see it as a tool, some see it as nonsense, some see it as reality. It’s complicated, and it’s interesting, and it comes off as a perfectly natural part of life, not some freakish add-on. I’m a big fan.


  1. Matthew,

    I know you’re looking for the silver lining here – and I must admit I’ve never seen it – but if Rome is anything like Gladiator, I’d only add, with the ghost of Chesterton floating around somewhere in the middle of it, this canard:

    Interesting that a culture which eschews Christianity (self-loathing at its best, I suppose) seems able to produce a piece of art in which pre-Christian attitudes toward religion are taken as matter of fact.

    The religions we make ourselves, of course, are going to be much easier to swallow than the real thing – and gosh, after all, the gods aren’t any better than us, anyway, are they?

    At any rate, this is not to disagree with your main point – certainly it is a good thing to see religion accepted as natural – but lets not forget that this same religion is, in Augustine’s estimation, (COG) mostly demonic influences and human chicanery, or vice versa.


  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Au contraire, JOB – my point here is that the attitudes toward religion in Rome, the TV series, are actually Christian attitudes, with the gods (small g) slipped in as stand-ins. Allying yourself with Hades, as Vorenus does, results in chaos and catastrophe and isolation. Prayer, persistent prayer, even in the midst of suffering, leads to salvation. Providence is at work – Pullo thinks he’s been frustrated in his attempt to do God’s will, but finds he’s able to do it more perfectly, because he finds that the children are still alive. And I think the attitudes toward religion itself – as tool, as hogwash, as truth – are in fact modern attitudes toward Christianity.

  3. I think it’s odd that as Catholics we feel compelled to impose a particular hermeneutic on whatever work of art it is that we are appraising. We have to find something “Catholic” about it. It reminds me of those Marxist literary critics who find evidence of dialectical materialism in every play by Shakespeare. Merton has a nice little bit in “Seven Storey Mountain” where he complains about them.

    And you can see that for Merton, the alternative is not to adopt a contrasting “Catholic” critical hermeneutic. Literature for him “belong[s] to a different order,” is about the fundamental experiences of the human person — “life, death, love, sorrow, fear wisdom, suffering, eternity” — and serves as “a kind of commentary” on other areas of human endeavor, lik ethics, psychology and “even theology.” It is its own thing. The works William Blake and William Shakespeare are to be appreciated under these canons of literary criticism, not by measuring their level of purported catholicity.

    The same goes for Rome. I disagree that they are Christian attitudes. Maybe the skeptical characters look more like modern agnostics than pre-modern Stoics, but for the most part, I think that the religious attitudes in the show are precisely pagan ones, pre-modern ones, before the religious sense was systematically uprooted from everyday human experience. I agree that the gods themselves were “made up,” as Job says, but the religious dynamic that inspired them to begin with is as natural as the urge to eat or to procreate. This is what makes the show so interesting to moderns like us, who have to make a concerted and conscious effort to rekindle the religious sense within us that has been suppressed by two hundred years of ideology. You don’t need a Christian reason to like the show. A human reason is enough. Christ came to make us fully human, didn’t He?

  4. Matthew Lickona says

    Sweet fancy Moses on toast, I never meant to suggest that you had to see anything Christian in Rome to appreciate the show. I sure as hell don’t put the “but is it somehow Catholic” litmus test to any piece of art I encounter, especially, perhaps, one that takes place in a pre-Christian world. But what abot the belief expressed do you find “precisely pagan”? The notion of throwing curses, I’ll grant you. But look where making himself a son of Hades leads: to chaos and isolation and misery, a situation that dovetails very nicely with a Christian vision of aligning yourself with hell. I could go on, but I want to hear your side.

  5. “the attitudes toward religion in Rome, the TV series, are actually Christian attitudes”

    “And I think the attitudes toward religion itself – as tool, as hogwash, as truth – are in fact modern attitudes toward Christianity.”


    This is part of my point: the modern attitudes are NOT Christian attitudes – and my main point, to reiterate, is that there is something good about a piece of art that can see religion as at the very least natural (that is the sliver lining – I know you well enough not to think you’re trying to Catholicize the show!) – but it is in that very naturalness that it betrays its maker’s paganism, a paganism which, I reassert, has evil as its root, though the natural impulse to worship is not; and a paganism which, I fear, has come along now that the Christian horse is out of the barn.

    At any rate, my point was not to criticize the show as such (how can I – I’ve never seen it?) nor your own sensibilities about such things – rather, it is to flesh out a thorn that’s been in my side regarding Hollywood and religion – when it gets it right, even, it still betrays its paganism.

    Whether a natural level of appreciation for religion is enough to form any kind of hope – something on which to build – depends on whether you see Tinseltown’s Empire as half full with the rule of Constantine or half empty with the rule of Julian the Apostate.

    Speaking of Catholicizing things, anyone heard any more scuttlebutt on the new Brideshead movie? Ten to one they make the homosexuality between Charles and Sabastian more explicit…


  6. I never meant to suggest that you had to see anything Christian in Rome to appreciate the show.

    The reason why I got this impression is because your original post does not mention Christianity or Christian attitudes. You mentioned the Christian attitudes only in defense from Job’s critiques. I thought to myself, Surely there is a better way to defend this.

    But look where making himself a son of Hades leads: to chaos and isolation and misery, a situation that dovetails very nicely with a Christian vision of aligning yourself with hell. I could go on, but I want to hear your side.

    I don’t know that much about Roman/Greek attitudes towards the Hades/Pluto, beyond what is found in Homer and a little of the Aeneid. Maybe there is a clearer sense of good and evil in the world for Rome than there actually was in ancient Rome, and I wouldn’t be surprised if post-Christians who are unaware of their own vestigial Christian assumptions were to project those unknown assumptions into a world that they created. Still, from the little I’ve read about Roman life, it was religious in a natural way, the way you put it. And I think the greater point here is that Christians have more in common with Roman pagans than the do with modern seculars, as far as piety is concerned. (Though I still prefer living in a secular world than in ancient Rome, for many reasons.)

  7. mark thomas lickona says

    Matt is right. The writers didn’t have to give religion a role at all, let alone such an effective one, not to mention such a providential one; every upper-class, “enlightened” Roman could have been portrayed as paying as much lip-service to “the gods” and Roman religion as Cicero did (a portrayal which would be more accurate historically). Therefore the question is begged: Why is this choice being made? One could say: Because they only have experience of, and therefore only know how to write, something that looks like Christian piety, prayer and providence as opposed to something that looks like the idolatrous or empty vanities of pagan piety…but again, why make religion important at all? There was enough intrigue and iniquity in the pagan world to fill up ten solid seasons (this is all I thought the show would be, in fact)…so why make room for the (apparent) action of divine beings, for a religious cosmos?…

  8. Matthew,

    I should add one further thought, while I’m at it: Chesterton rightly points out that in its dealings with Carthage, even pagan Rome understood – perhaps as much by the morality derived from its triumphant rule of law as by anything – that mass child sacrifice was disgusting and the sign of a city that could not exist in an empire that declared a certain civility (albeit degraded by the time the Caesars come along).

    Thus “Cathage deleta est” was more than a rallying battle cry – it was the embodiment of Rome’s recognition that what was going on in Carthage was not to be sustained by civilized nations. (Archeologists later found a bonefield full of tiny skeletons – hundreds of thousands.)

    So, as clear as Plutarch makes it that Numa’s decision to establish an official religion for the Romans was crucial to mollifying the people, it also, to a certain extent, you could argue, allowed the Roman rule of law (which is really the greatest gift bestowed by Rome to us) to sprout and flourish – and eventually, when grafted to Catholicism (Rome + Catholicism = Roman Catholicism), enabled the Church to offer the fruits of Christianity to the world.

    As to why the creators of “Rome” added divinities – I’ll just bet there’s got to be a liberal arts major or two helping with the scripts – and having read Homer and Virgil probably didn’t hurt their inspiration in the least. Could you imagine Homer without the gods? That’s where half the excitement and intrigue in the story comes from.

    If “Rome” starts to lose favor among audiences (if it has it now – I don’t know) – it will probably be when it starts showing the gods themselves (if they haven’t already been doing this) as characters in the drama. Nitzsche said that by unmasking the gods in the Bacchae, Euripides killed tragedy.

    On the other hand, those who have read the catfight between Athena and Aphrodite in The Iliad might not necessarily see it as jumping the shark…


    p.s. Your internet connexion still on the fritz?

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