Here, Father Steve offers his commentary on the the popular HBO series, Rome, in light of Anthony Everitt's book, Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor. Father Steve takes a closer look at the legacy of two of the most influential rulers of the Ancient Eternal City in contrast to another widely known figure in roughly the same historical period...
This past week I enjoyed some down time and took the opportunity to watch the second season of the television series, Rome
. The series was created by Bruno Heller, John Milius and William J. McDonald for the BBC and aired in the United States on HBO. The creators of the series were all fans of the drama, I Claudius
, an adaptation of the famous re-telling of the history of the Caesars by Robert Graves which appeared years ago on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.
I share their enthusiasm for this production and was captivated by this drama, which provoked me as a young man to read not only Graves’ books, but also the writings of Suetonious, from whom Graves cribbed much of his material. Neither Rome
nor I Claudius
are intended for a general audience because of their visceral subject matter: profanity, sex, treachery, and violence abound. Those with more sensitive dispositions might cringe, but the story of Rome and the Caesars is a story about all these things and more. If you can’t take this kind of heat, you had best stay far away from the cauldron of the Caesars. (For those of you interested in Father Barron’s review of season one of “Rome” the link is here.
The HBO series presents a dramatized account of the machinations of power and the over-the-top personalities that emerged as the Republic of Rome became the Empire of the Caesars. The first season displayed the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the second brings into focus the character of the man who succeeded him, his nephew and heir, Octavian, whom history remembers as Augustus. The series is best characterized as historical fiction, a kind of novelization of real people and circumstances, but despite all its errors and omissions, what emerges is a relatively unique and truthful portrait of the Roman empire, a portrait that is made all the more compelling because it takes us into the shadows of the human character. What we experience is not an idealization of Roman civilization but the raw power of an empire of which vestiges still endure to this day.
As a companion to the series I read Anthony Everitt’s account of the life of Octavian entitled “Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor.” If one correlates the information garnered from this book to the series one discovers that the personality of the character of Octavian in the HBO series and the real person are entirely in sync. He was not a man whom one would want as an enemy or even a friend. Being his friend might afford one privileges, but the disadvantage might be offending such a friend, and in doing so, facing the dire consequences. There is a particularly memorable scene in the HBO series in which Octavian and Antony, strapped for cash to pay for their armies, conspire to murder the wealthy elites of Rome and confiscate their money and property to finance their plans for conquest. Octavian’s mother, Atia, proposes a family for the list simply because she finds their daughter annoying. Neither Octavian or Antony protest and later the pathetic girl bursts into Atia’s home, beaten and broken. Atia pretends to know nothing and later forces the girl into a marriage that will evidently advance Atia’s own agenda. The scene is fictional, but the event is not. Octavian and Marc Antony did execute innocent people and steal their money, and history records Octavian as being unusually merciless in this regard.
Octavian was ruthless, and in terms of his character, Rome got the emperor it deserved. Under his reign, the empire was brought to order, but it was an order founded upon and forged by the power of violence and the threat of cruelty. This order preceded Octavian; his predecessor and uncle achieved momentary mastery of this power and violence until it consumed him. Augustus lived a long life, but it is likely that the Roman order of power and violence did him in as well. The elderly Augustus was likely poisoned by his wife, Livia, to assure a smooth transition of power to her son, Tiberius. The ambitions of Julius Caesar would create a dynasty that ruled Rome until the death of Nero, whose infamy is well known. But whatever Nero learned, he learned from the masters who preceded him, from Octavian and his kin.
We have become accustomed in our culture to power being wielded, at least for the most part, for the good of all by men and women who in a relatively short period of time will relinquish it to another. Corruption remains a perennial issue in politics, but cruelty receives little sanction. This was not the case in Rome and it could be said that cruelty was the condition for the possibility of power. What might be interesting to consider is that for most of human history the cruelty that was displayed by Rome would have been met with a shrug of the shoulders- it is the way of the world. One learned to negotiate such a system, to survive it, but changing it? Not even the great minds of Plato or Aristotle conceived of such a possibility. Octavian embraced the possibilities inherent in the Roman system and perfected them in himself. He was great and accomplished mighty deeds, but the man himself, in the words of Cleopatra from the series, had a “rotten soul.”
Octavian was surprised by Cleopatra’s characterization of him, and perhaps some of us are as well. We might be inclined to think of the man as a heroic figure, the father of a nation who is so famous that he even merited mention in one of the Gospels. Octavian was surprised because he acted as he knew a Roman should act. Being a Roman was the criteria for what was good. Such reasoning is not enough for many of us. We see Octavian and his heirs as deplorable. What has changed in us?
I would argue that what has changed is the strange and slow distillation of the revelation of Christ, who, if we understand him properly, is the great antithesis to Octavian. Christ was proclaimed by his followers to be an alternative to Caesar, and the faith engendered in Jesus of Nazareth proposed the possibility of a cultural order founded on a power that rejected cruelty as a means to a personal and political ends. The followers of Christ used the greatest sign of Roman power, the cross, as a means of undoing that power’s hold over the hearts and minds of Caesar’s subjects, telling men and women that they were not meant to be the slaves of Rome, but were in fact, the children of God. Rodney Stark, in his masterful telling of why Christianity gained ascendency in the Roman Empire, relates its success to the ability of the Church to embody a different social system that sought to accomplish through works of compassion what the Roman system proved incapable of doing. It was Christ, not Caesar, that established the cultural precedents that we understand as human rights. The secular heirs of Caesar might lay claim to this rhetoric, but the precedents for human rights are not found in the humanistic claims of post enlightenment theorists, but in the Incarnation of God in Christ and in his resurrection from the dead.
This is a bold claim that secularity cannot easily abide. Christianity changed things, and despite the claims of some, things changed not just for the worst, but for the better. The Church was not simply subsumed into the Roman order, but acted as a foil against it. Even as it sought accommodation with the imperial system of Augustus and his heirs, the subversive nature of the Gospel proved to be the empire’s undoing. In the wreck of the empire, it was the Church that would emerge. If Octavian could somehow step out from the past and survey the contemporary city of Rome, would he scan the skyline of the city looking for his monuments and mausoleum only to see the dome spanning the tomb of the follower of the Messiah of Israel? What would he think? What do we think about such a dramatic reversal? Do we appreciate why it still matters? One wonders as the influence of Christianity on the culture of the West wanes if the power of Caesar will again emerge and we will face again the perilous decision of Caesar or Christ?
Father Steve is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.