Saturday, December 09, 2006


This is just a wild guess, but I'm thinking that Netflix is the greatest product-delivery system in the history of the universe. By means of Netflix I was able to see, over the course of a few days, the entire 12 episodes of HBO's 2005 drama series, "Rome." Durn good.

I was long ago obsessed with the ancient world. Chalk it up to boredom on the landlocked plains of West Texas. In high school but more so in college -- where I finally had access to a library -- I delved into everything ancient and monumental. I had encouragement from a raft of big-budget Hollywood movies -- "Quo Vadis" and "The Robe" in grade school, "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus" and Liz Taylor as "Cleopatra" in high school (among many others).

Let's be honest. The ancient Rome virus actually first infected me in a church pew. We went to church three times a week. The world of Jesus was constantly pictured for us, from paper-cutouts-on-flannel-board Sunday School lessons to the story-telling of the preacher -- often hyper-realistic renditions of the Crucifixion, down to the nails going slowly into Christ-flesh.

Lotta Roman soldiers, not to mention Pontius Pilate, figured prominently. They were symbols of the dangerously non-Christian.

In other words, Hollywood Romans put baking soda into my teenaged Christian flour. While those movies reinforced my Christian sense of exclusivity (certain people were going straight to hell) on the one hand (get a load of those effete emperors, Jay Robinson in "The Robe" and Peter Ustinov in "Quo Vadis"), the spectacle of that whole opulent world fizzed my bottled religion.

(What makes a tourist, after all? George F. Will said it: "Something in us is drawn toward what we are ashamed of being drawn toward.")

Hollywood wasn't stupid. Along with the silk and marble, swords and shields, carousing and slaughtering to beat the band, Hollywood always, always threw in some pious Christian gospel. Remember the wild ending to "The Robe"? The soundtrack swelling with strings and chorus, angels in heaven singing, as the Christian hero (a former noble Roman) and the Christian heroine entered the Colosseum to be martyred. Wow.

That kind of Christian context -- call it judgment day -- has done gone and took a hike in HBO's "Rome." (Serious warning: this series is NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN. Nor for adults prone to the vapors.) This is the heavily researched, historically accurate depiction of a society where morality is strictly a personal choice.

What's right and wrong in "Rome"? Jonathan Stamp, historical consultant: "Whether or not an action is wrong depends on whether people more powerful than you approve. You were allowed to murder your neighbour or covet his wife if it didn't piss off the wrong person. Mercy was a weakness, cruelty a virtue, and all that mattered was personal honour, loyalty to yourself and your family."

That's what I'm talking about! This is ancient Rome-as-Mafia. Godfather patricians (literally in Latin, "the fathers"), protecting their families and their fortunes ... largely by inducing tons of retainers to swear allegiance and to be willing to die for them. Noble men in that culture were not afraid of blood -- ultimate acts, performed hand-to-hand. Ambitious men (and often their wives) were completely capable of murder. After all, Julius Caesar gets snuffed on the floor of the Senate by fellow senators.

"Rome" features mutilations, stabbings, beheadings, you name it. At one point, a teenage girl says of her conniving mother, "I'll tear her throat out with my teeth," and you realize she absolutely would.

"Rome" opens in the middle of a bloody battle. It's 52 B.C. ("before Christ," remember). It's the battle of Alesia, when Julius Caesar's 60,000 professional soldiers cut 160,000 "barbarian" Gauls to shreds. We're up close in the battle, watching two working soldiers, the first, a centurion warrior, giving orders to the second, a member of his squadron, a plebeian legionary, a professional foot soldier armed with shield and short sword. The legionary is savage in battle, difficult to control. Except for him, the whole squad acts like a Borg collective under the command of the centurion.

But "Rome" is not primarily about big battles. It's not. The (very) few pitched battles we see are staged up close and intimate, with no more than 60 extras, so there aren't any spectacles of the "Spartacus" type. No, the spectacle here is all about the intimate workings of a class-and-caste social system, dominated by a few hundred old families from the same racial stock who grew rich on the labors of people they disdained as inferiors. Both the centurion and the plebe warrior are of that lower class.

The fact that in "Rome" we meet the plebeian soldiers before we meet the patricians tells you a great deal about the tone of this drama. The patricians, the bosses, are descendants of an original Indo-European tribe (some say the were Nordic blonds) who invaded the Italian peninsula from the north and came to dominate it through aggressive warfare. Eventually, they established themselves the masters of a native, ethnically distinct population who sunk into plebe status, free after a fashion, yes, but still essentially working-for-the-man, as craftsmen, tradesmen, foot soldiers to the aristocrats.

For hundreds of years prior to the events depicted in "Rome," the plebeians had grown restless. Only patricians sat in the Senate; only patricians served as priests. All the laws, all the taxes, all the revered customs were written to protect the wealth and power of the small patrician class. Even a not-very-swift plebeian could see the basic inequity.

A universal fiction held everyone in check, that Rome was a "republic" of equals. Everyone paid obeisance to that ideal, even though it didn't in fact exist. The only equals were the descendants of the 300 or so first families, oligarchs who treated each other with a certain amount of deference but who had not much respect for anybody else.

HBO's depiction in "Rome" begins at a time when some plebeians had managed to climb higher in the society. There's a plebeian tribune, for example, who actually had veto power, and a handful of plebeian senators. Working-class men were running for local magistrate and other public offices. Religious observances, however -- the entire priesthood -- was still reserved for the upperclass.

Some patricians were aligning themselves politically with plebeians. Such a one was Julius Caesar. He added plebes to the Senate. He even added Gauls. Julius Caesar may have been a Democrat, but not necessarily a liberal one. He needed these lower-caste allies to help establish himself as Number One.

The conservative Patricians who murdered J.C. feared the growing power of the plebeian class. They feared losing their grip. They feared the plebes so much they were willing to cede power to a single ruler, an emperor, Octavius, subsequently known as "Augustus." These historic events following the death of Caesar will provide the content of the second season of "Rome," set to premier on HBO this January.

"Rome" offers lessons about empire. Empire perpetuates itself, at least in this example, by conquest and plunder. Slaves were a coincidence of plunder.

The HBO series makes it clear that slavery was justified intellectually by means of pure eugenics. Your typical Roman of either class thought slaves were slaves because they chose to be slaves, by surrendering, by being genetically weak. Slaves were not people, not Romans, not of us. Beat them, kill them, toss their bodies into the rubbish heap. No bigger deal than changing tapestries in your villa.

Not that the patricians didn't treat their A-number-one house slaves as trusted intimates. Caesar himself keeps Posca, his Greek slave, at his side always. Posca is valued administrator, CFO of the army, spy, Mr. Fix-it. He would die for Caesar, and he does.

Body slaves stay with their masters and mistresses in the most intimate moments. There are many sex scenes in "Rome" that feature an audience of slaves. The wicked lead patrician woman, Atia, at one point rolls off the naked Marc Antony and asks her slave for water. Not two feet away, observing everything in stony silence, the slave woman hands over water in a fine blown-glass cup.

There were second-hand slaves, rental slaves, top-end slaves, low-end chattel -- a regular Wal-Mart of bought flesh.

One of the great revelations of "Rome" is that, though this society was certainly pre-Christian, it was not irreligious. It was obsessively religious, as a matter of fact, with gods and goddesses worshipped everywhere, prayed to at every hour, starting at the hearth of every patrician and plebeian home, where the Lares and the Penates, the household gods, offered protections for the family. All gods were important; the gods of a conquered culture were simply added to the pantheon (which partly explains how Jesus Christ got such a foothold so quickly). All gods demanded prayers and sacrifices, usually something involving blood.

We're not making any claims that "Rome" is a stand-in for our American empire of the neocons. The series is certainly too dedicated to factual and realistic history to attempt a cheap shot like that. But the 12 episodes did make us thoughtful about the implications of empire -- the inevitable corruptions of character, the hidden injuries of class, the spiritual degradation of both master and servant under the cruel institution of slavery. Christianity was probably the best thing that ever happened to Rome. America could actually use a little unpoliticized Christianity itself.

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