Bruno Heller’s Rome (2005)
By Merchys Diaz
Before many of us were able to rave about Game of Thrones, there was Bruno Heller’s historical drama Rome (2005) for HBO. When the show debuted, it was considered to be revolutionary, with large battle scenes and exotic filming locations. The first season of the show takes us on a journey of the life and times of Julius Caesar and the final days of the Roman Republic. However, as I watched the show, something that stuck out to me was how often the characters engage in religious practices and express devotion to many different Roman gods. Yet, it’s evident that the show insists on showcasing differences in gendered behavior regarding these religious practices.
Although ancient scholars of Roman religion believed that an individual’s “belief” or “faith” are based on Christianity and were inappropriately associated with Greek and Roman religion, the are many scenes in the show where the main characters perform some type of plea or ritual in honor of specific gods for their individual needs. Furthermore, these instances of devotion in the show vary in context and dramatic aspects.
In the show, we see that public rituals are strongly governed by men because they pertain to newly achieved political status or victory. In episode 10, we see Caesar getting his face painted by his nephew Octavian with oxblood at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus right before his triumph. He has an exchange with Marc Antony, who is mocking him for “playing God”. Caesar responds by saying “Playing? I’m not playing. This is not a game.” Caesar’s devotion is being shown publicly and he is connecting his triumph and victory with his belief in Jupiter (according to Roman mythology, the god of sky and thunder and king of the gods).
Another example is Lucius Vorenus’ induction into the prestigious Evocati—Roman soldiers who have completed their service but receive a personal invitation by Roman political leaders to re-enlist. Vorenus has strong traditional Roman Republic values, and although he is conflicted in regard to his new position, his belief in the importance of religion in connection to duty is evident in this scene. The ritual takes place in the temple of Mars, which is a public space. He kneels and draws his sword to the ground as the priest of Mars prays to Mars Strider stating, “This man has done faithful vigil for you. We therefore ask you to take him under your protection.” Again, we see the role of religious practices among the men in the show in relation to political success and status.
For the women on the show, religious practices are much more intricate. In an earlier scene, we see Atia at the taurobolium of Cybele (the Great Mother) being showered with the blood of a dying bull as she prays for the safety of her son Octavian during a dangerous journey to Gaul (a journey she forced him to go on). Atia links her maternal concern with her devotion to Cybele, as she performs this ritual in an intimate space. After the ritual, Atia is able to immediately soak in a bath where she converses with her daughter Octavia, giving the understanding that this is a much more private space than the religious spaces we see for the men later on in the show.
Not only does Atia rely on the goddess Cybele when she’s emotionally distressed over the safety of her son, but in two different instances, we see her daughter Octavia worshiping Cybele in moments of crisis. The scene that stands out the most is in episode 10 when Octavia is seen cutting herself as she prays to Cybele in the temple of Magna Mater. Octavia is experiencing a mental breakdown due to her traumatic relationship with her mother and committing incest with her brother Octavian. Historically, the temple of Magna Matter was located in a busy urban area on the Palatine Hill (one of the oldest and most prestigious neighborhoods of the time). Yet, the show portrays the temple as this modern and spa-like isolated place. It is clear that for the purpose of character development, the show has changed the history of Cybele’s cult from being one of public patriotism to one of personal and isolated worship for tormented Roman women.
Essentially, male religious behavior in the show is presented mostly in public and in connection to politics or civic duty; while the female religious behaviors are presented as much more emotional, private, and mostly pertain to their domestic concerns. We could assume that the show needed to embellish certain parts of what Roman life was like during the Republic for dramatic purposes. Nevertheless, it was quite interesting to see this version of the history and importance of gods in Roman culture portrayed on the screen.