24 February 2013

HBO's pagan Rome

A Facebook Friend just found this nifty little ten minute promotional piece on the portrayal of religion in the HBO/BBC series Rome.

I'm a great fan of the show for a host of reasons, not least because it's just plain entertaining. Most of all, though, I love its commitment to presenting us with the flavor of Roman culture, and much as The Wire is ultimately about institutional failure in American cities, I think Rome is about how profoundly alien to modern sensibilities Roman culture was.

As a Modern Pagan, I particularly enjoy the way that Roman religion is portrayed. It's not a terribly flattering picture — indeed, I find it to be a refreshing antidote to the way some Modern Pagans sloppily romanticize the pagan practices of the ancients. But it's a vivid and complex picture which beautifully and convincingly shows how pervasive Roman religion was in Roman culture. The clip includes a number of examples. There's a discussion of the show's unforgettable portrayal of a bloody sacrifice to Cybele, and a scene I really like of Titus Pullo in a tight spot doing a little practical magick calling on a god's aid.

Not featured in the promo is one of my favorite scenes, a sequence which I think is the best portrayal of pagan ritual I've ever seen on film. (As Pagans reading this likely know, this is maddeningly difficult to do. Film or photograph even a very effective ritual and it looks flat, lifeless, and even awkward.) Roman soldier Lucius Vorenus has acquired a plot of land which he will plant, and he goes out to bless the field with his wife Niobe, his hired retainers, and a priest. The priest starts chanting and Lucius and Niobe lay down in the dirt to engage in a little sympathetic magick signifying fertility (yes, that) while the servants are there just kind of standing around. There's a long moment where the whole thing feels hopelessly awkward and goofy. But Lucius and Niobe do love each other, and this is present as they embrace, and this overcomes the awkwardness ... and it sneaks up on them and us watching that hey, a little magic happens. Lovely.

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