Sex in the City of Rome

I do not have a TV, haven’t had one for more than ten years. Since it occurred to me that most tv-programming is there mainly to keep you occupied between commercials, I lost interest. Obviously there are exceptions, and my friend suggested that ”Rome” is an example. So I watched a few episodes, and I have to agree – although there are some irritating TV:isms here (endless sideplots, stupid ”comical” characters” idiotic cliffhangers) there is enough substance to keep me interested. Some of the main characters are very good (the female characters are very weak, interestingly enough), and the main plot is, although familiar, a story worth seeing.

The genius of the series is of course the way Roman society is presented. Although I know more of Rome a few centuries later, I know something of antiquity and it is great fun to see how well they present things that make Roman society different from ours. The way slaves are presented is a good example, the range of different ”uses” for slaves is displayed well. The same is largely true about the brutality shown – all male characters are violent in a way that strikes us as alien – even Ceasar slaps a women in the face without any type of remorse.

The most interesting aspect for me where the producers have done the homework really well is the role of religion. Not only do we see the variety of religious devotion – different gods being worshipped, difference in piety and the typical antique mixture of cynical yet serious ”use” of religious power. What is important, not the least for anyone who wants to understand the environment of early Christianity, is the way religion, in spite of all these differences, unites the Roman society from the highest ranks of power to poorest among slaves. Religion truly is what binds this world together.

So the makers of this series have really taken in the results of the past decades of study of antiquity and its turn to ”the ordinary”, – i.e. the lives of ordinary people and do a really good job of bringing ancient Rome to life. This makes the one exception all the more interesting, because there is one area where they have apparently had no interest all in being realistic: the way love is portrayed.

Mainly I speak of the way sex, romantic love and marriage is connected for several characters in a way that is much more 19th century A.D. than first century B.C. I don’t think the notion that anyone, in any class, would marry ”because they love each other” is realistic. Also, for some of the characters, the obligations of marriage are distinctly Christian – e.g. they include fidelity for both partners (that is, also for males), which was unheard of before the Christianization of Rome. All families are further of the modern two-generation kind, something that would have been rare in Rome. And finally women are treated with much more respect than what seems to have been the case. Roman girls, outside the very highest caste, rarely had even personal names.

There are more examples, but the point is clear enough. This is extremely interesting for this shows how important these ideas are to us. Clearly, the makers of the series realized that had they portrayed also these aspects of Roman society accurately, it would have shocked, disgusted or just confused the audience to the point where the series would not have worked. This tells me that we as a culture can accept the idea that there is variety in religion, violence, politics and economy, but we are completely unable to imagine that the way we love is culturally conditioned, or put differently, than the way we love reflects the tradition we have been formed by. In other words, the myth of romantic love is far more important in our culture than any other cultural mythology. In fact romantic role plays a similar role in our society to that which religion played in ancient Rome.

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