Maundy Thursday, Evening of the Lord’s Supper

•April 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment


Maundy Thursday, Evening of the Lord’s Supper:

“Glory to you, our God, Glory to you!

The wisdom of God
Who rules the ungovernable waters of the heavens,
Who tames the deeps and restrains the seas,
Now pours water into a basin,
And the master washes the feet of his servants.”

“He is the One who covered death with shame and cast the devil into mourning, as Moses cast Pharaoh into mourning . He is the One that smote sin and robbed iniquity of offspring, as Moses robbed the Egyptians of their offspring. He is the One who brought us out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life, out of tyranny into an eternal kingdom; who made us a new priesthood, a people chosen to be his own for ever. He is the Passover that is our salvation. “

“A new commandment I give unto you: that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

From a Canticle of the Litany for Great and Holy Thursday (Orthodox Triodion)
From a Sermon of Melito of Sardis (Office of Readings for Holy Thursday, Roman Rite)
Gospel of St. John 13:34 (KJV)

Let Us Run to Accompany Him

•April 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“Sitting on your throne in heaven,
Carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God!
Accept the praise of angels and the Songs of children who sing:
Blessed is he that comes to recall adam!”

“Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.”

“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may enter in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory!”


Kontakion for Palm Sunday (Orthodox Triodion)
From a Sermon of St Andrew of Crete (Office of Readings, Roman Rite)
Psalm 24:9-10
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

On Not Being Outraged by the News

•April 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Have you heard the news? Its outrageous, isn’t it? For someone to be treated so unfairly, unjustly! Its a travesty that this thing has been done. The people that have done this are a bunch of &^%#!!@* and deserve to die. %$#@ them! Anyone who can do or say such things is a lousy piece of $@!&. Can you believe it! Oh, it makes me so mad, I just want to kill that !@#$&*((&^.

As part of my Lenten discipline, I have given up reading internet websites, except for research purposes, but have allowed myself any website that involves communication. And, since I am on Facebook, this means I still get treated to the various posts my friends (and yes, many of them are my actual friends) make on their facebook “walls.” Lately, I have been treated to a few posts which deliver some sort of message of outrage at this or that thing in the news.  I don’t mean to stand in judgment on my friends, but seeing the way others post in that forum on this or that issue (almost always political, sometimes cultural, sometimes both) has given me pause as to my own attitudes toward things I hear or read on various news outlets.  That first paragraph there is an approximation of the reaction I normally have whenever I hear something I vehemently disagree with.  Okay, so its a bit of a parody, but not by much.  Whenever some election, political vote, or opinion polling seems to go against my beliefs, my point of view, I confess to having gloomy, slightly paranoid thoughts sometimes, a habit I have tried hard over the years to break.  My point is that this experience of giving up the internet has led me to the conclusion that I should basically do this full time, only using the internet for research and communication purposes.

I mention all of this because, years ago, I had a teacher in college who inspired me to stop reading newspapers and periodical magazines on a regular basis, for much the same reasons that I am contemplating giving up the internet (mostly).  This man eventually became my Master’s thesis advisor, and had a profound effect on my life in many ways I will not have occasion to mention here.  He even wrote a short but pithy book arguing that news consumption literally makes us dumb, not only because it focuses us too much on conflict (and therefore leads us to blow things out of proportion, which is only one my of problems) but also because it dumbs our view of the world down by reducing it into tiny bits of easily consumable information, often devoid of proper context, merely for the sake of fitting into periodical schedules.  I’ll never forget reading his book; I’ve never been able to look at any news entity the same since.  And I quit reading newspapers and watching the news regularly about that time, and have never done so since.

I know what you’re probably thinking.   Isn’t it irresponsible not to want to stay connected with current events?  Isn’t burying yourself in a room somewhere reading books just sort of hiding from the world?  People made the same objections about my mentor’s book, but it kind of misunderstands his point.  He didn’t say the news industry was evil (well, not totally, anyway), and he didn’t even say that all periodical literature was bad for your mental health.  He understood people needed things to talk about, but what concerned him was the way the more regular news schedules (weekly, daily, now ever present) tended to focus one’s mind completely on the moment, to the exclusion of a larger view of the world.  (This is partly what led me to study history as a graduate student, and was no small influence on my conversion to Catholicism as well.)  If one was grounded in a such a larger view, he thought, some news consumption would not be that bad.  His concern was for people who seemed to have no other means of understanding their world but the things they see on their nightly news cast or weekly magazine.

The upshot of this post is that I believe I slipped back into a sort of news consuming mentality when I became an avid internet user, and of course blogs and other websites have merely accelerated the phenomena my mentor complained about so many years ago.  It is thus in the interests of my mental but also spiritual health that I think I need to sever myself from my attachment to the internet.  I’m not suggesting that there aren’t causes worth fighting for or injustices worth getting upset about in the world, but I find it is better to encounter those experiences directly rather than through the mediation of the periodical news industry, generally speaking.  It is far too easy to learn to hate those we disagree with, if we only take the view of them that is presented to us in the media, far too easy to blow out of proportion even legitimately troubling events that come our way through such media.  And it is easy because such decontextualized, periodically packaged news items naturally float free of the wider world from which they have been abstracted, leaving us free to fill in the rest with our imaginations, which though they are sometimes helpful just as often thrive on fear, anxiety, and distort our view of things beyond what they really are.  At least, this is the case with me, and I hope my resolution to cut myself off from the entertainment and news of blogs bears fruit in the form of greater patience in enduring events I unjust or intolerable, greater charity towards others, and hopefully less unjustified outrage in my soul when all is said and done.



Alypius Minor

Nature is Not Profane

•April 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Nature cannot compare with the infinite, the transcendent, the eternal; but this does not mean God created us to denigrate, or abuse it. Our feelings do not determine truth, or replace the law that God has placed in our hearts; but that does not make our feelings meaningless. Human beings are the apex of God’s creation on Earth, the object of his desire, such that he joined himself to humankind in order to save them; yet this does not mean that we are to treat our natural environment as King Herod treated John the Baptist, doing with him whatever he pleased. Marriage is a spiritual fellowship, a partnership of embodied souls, that goes far beyond the physical; but this does not mean that biology is arbitrary, or that one can exclude the creation of life as the most basic and primary telos of marriage, because one wishes it. We cannot save our selves by our own efforts, our natures cannot bear such a task; but without our natural gifts, there would be nothing for God to save. The glory of the human person is the use of his reason, whereby he communicates his thoughts, passions and loves to his fellow man, and to God; but this does not mean the person who is disabled, or born with birth defects, or as yet unborn, unable to use that rational faculty, are so much refuse to be discarded when those who can use that faculty see fit to do so. We were made for the infinite, triune God that created us, and he is our end, our destiny; but without the constraints and restraints that nature imposes upon us, we limited beings would simply cease to exist-like the world itself before God set it motion, without form and void. I myself have desired to profane my own nature, and do so repeatedly; I have desired all these things, despising myself and my own kind, wishing to be rid of the limitations placed upon me by nature.   We all desire more, but now we must sojourn in this earthly body, and so let us conduct ourselves as St. Paul enjoins us to, as the sons and daughters of God-not defying our own nature, but embracing it.  We may grow angry, we may kick against the pricks; we may pour out our bitter complaint to God for our limitations, which cause us so much grief.  That much at least is our right.  But let us also be thankful for them, for they make us who we are, the person, the human being that God has so awfully and wonderfully made.



Alypius Minor

Rome & the Rise of the Historical Soap Opera, Part II

•February 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In the first post in this series, I outlined what was bad and ugly about the television series Rome.  In this post, I will complete the circle by describing what was good about the series.


The Good, Part 1:  Historical Rome

Most films and series that have depicted ancient Rome have focused primarily on the great political actors of their respective ages:  Julius Caesar, Pompey, Caesar Augustus, later emperors such as Nero, Tiberius, Claudius or Marcus Aurelius.  Such films almost never focus on the lower orders, precisely because we don’t have nearly as much evidence as to what they were like, when compared with the senatorial and imperial classes.  And this is precisely where Rome excelled, as it focused on the lower orders of Roman society as no series or film had before it, and with magnificent results.

The story itself focuses on two soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, who appear in Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Caesar praising the two soldiers who come to blows with each other.  From this, the shows producers spun a story in which their lives intersect with those of Caesar, Marc Antony, Pompey, Cicero, etc.  The effect is to highlight the differences between the patrician and plebeian orders in ancient Rome.  Now, most of the written evidence for what life was like in ancient Rome was penned by people of the upper classes, which is a problem for the study of virtually all ancient societies, but the archeological record can reveal many things about the life of ordinary people in Rome, and this comes out in the series, particularly in the visual elements of the city.  For example, the wooden tenements that many lived in, as well as their crowded and cramped nature, is portrayed quiet vividly in the series, especially in the second season, where much of the series takes place in the city.  The impact of civil war, the exigencies that it would impose on characters such as soldiers like Vorenus and Pullo is done with great care, and realism.  (Again, I think the drawing on modern working class ethos that seems to characterize the series was very helpful here, in an artistic sense, but also as a way of relating the travails of the lower orders of ancient Rome to a modern audience.)  One gets a good sense of both the pageantry, the color of ancient Rome, but also its squalor; most films, series tend to portray ancient Rome as a sort of white marble and dust ghost town, influenced too much by Romantic and Classical art, I suppose.  The sets in Rome, which were filmed in studios in modern Rome, convey the living vitality of the city excellently.

But aside from the visuals, probably the most impressive thing about Rome is the way it treats of religion in ancient Rome.  I have said before that the most important thing about an historical film, besides the need to have it look authentic, is that it not violate the beliefs of the people that it is meant to depict, does not put words or ideas in the mouths of characters that would not have been there.  In most treatments of ancient Rome, I have found the religious aspect to be treated in basically two ways:  skeptically, or in the case of I, Claudius and Gladiator, touched over with a veneer of modern “spirituality,” goddess worship in the case of Robert Graves and a sort of folk-religious belief in an after life for the agnostic Ridley Scott.   Now, these latter two approaches are not totally incorrect; elements of skepticism were rife of course in ancient Rome, and that vague, folk belief in an afterlife was present.  But no movie or series I have ever seen has actually tried to capture what “religion” amounted to for Romans more than Rome.  For example, early in the series, the character Atia, the mother of Octavius, the future emperor, goes through a ritual associated with the goddess Cybele, in which a live bull is sacrificed and Atia bathes in its blood. This might seem gross to a modern audience (and its not entirely clear this was the way such a sacrificed was performed), but that’s the point:  the series did an excellent job of presenting this in the raw to the audience, all the while maintaining the narrative energy of the story, precisely by hyper-charging those more fantastic elements in sources of the period.

Part of the reason the producers did this, besides wanting to play up these elements for the sake of dramatic effect, was a self-conscious effort on the part of those who made the series to emphasize the difference between the morality of the classical world and that of Christianity.  This is made clear in the extra features on the boxed set of season one, in which the historical consultant for the film made this clear, and the actors in interviews also said they wished to play this up as well.  This difference between Roman (and Greek) morality and that of Christianity can be overdone, of course, and many early Christian thinkers admired pagan moralists such as Seneca and other stoic philosophers, but on the whole modern scholarship tends to emphasize those differences-above all those regarding sexuality-which separate the two, and I think one can say that overall the picture the series presents, while over the top, is accurate in its essentials.  And this is, as far as a non-expert in Roman history can tell, representative of the series as a whole.


The Good, Part 2:  Of Characters and Performances

One of the better aspects of the show-both as a matter of drama and history-is the way many of the historical figures in the show were portrayed.  One of my favorites was the portrayal of Cicero by David Bamber, who brought out all of the aspects of Cicero that readers of his works are familiar with:  his fussy self-regard, his vanity, his wit, and above all his undying devotion to the old republic, which the social climber Cicero-the series makes clear he was not born in the Senatorial class-spent so much of his life defending.  On the other hand, Ciaran Hinds, a veteran character actor, portrayed Julius Caesar as the to-the-manor-born senator who wishes to be a king in a society that abhors the very idea of kingship, and dies in pursuit of it.  Cold, domineering, protective of his patrician dignity but capable of appealing to the masses (and manipulating them), Hinds’ Caesar is every bit the figure one would expect if you have read, say, Plutarch’s biography of him.   Despite some notable departures, noted above, for the most part the characters feel both realistic in terms of the world the series depicts, but also historically authentic-no mean feat, to say the least.

The best example of this, however, is the character of Marc Antony, as portrayed by James Purefoy, who was one of the few characters who made an appearance in every single episode of the show, and at least in my view, most emblematic of the violent energy which seemed to characterize both Rome as a show but also Rome as an historical reality.  One of the best aspects of the show, in my estimation, was the relationship between Antony and Vorenus, (seconded by Pullo’s friendship with Octavian).  Antony, according to Plutarch, was beloved by both the common people of Rome but also by his soldiers, who appreciated his earthy, sometimes crude nature.  Plutarch especially noted his ability to motivate his men, and this quality was portrayed beautifully in this scene from the second season, in which Antony is called by Pullo to bring Vorenus out of his torpor following the death of his family, for which he blames himself (as well as the death of Caesar, as he was involved with Caesar intimately in the series.)  Now, earlier in the first season, Vorenus had left the legions only to beg Antony to be allowed to return, and swore a personal oath of loyalty to Antony as the price of admission; Vorenus, if you haven’t seen the series, was the uptight, conservative part of the duo formed with Pullo, and he took oaths deadly seriously, something Antony, as portrayed in the series uses to rouse him out of his lethargy.  Watch, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean:

I found the dynamic between Vorenus and Antony (and Pullo and Octavian) to be utterly fascinating, given the power differences between them, and the way their relationship changes over the course of the series, is one of the highlights of watching Rome, as are the performances by Kevin McKidd, Purefoy, and the other skilled character actors in the show.  Perhaps one could criticize the portrayal of Octavian somewhat; no doubt, he was a bloodthirsty and ruthless person, which they do quite well in depicting, but Octavian had a better personal touch with the masses than the series gives him credit for.  Octavian was not from an aristocratic family, and Suetonius records that at the end of his life he seemed to think of his reign as something of a performance for the masses, and we have other evidence that he possessed something more of a popular touch than the creators of Rome allowed for.  Perhaps they minimized this in order to heighten the contrast with Antony, who was also known for this.  In any case, it doesn’t alter the fact that most of the historical personalities matched up pretty well with what can be gleaned from ancient writers like Plutarch and Cicero.


The Good, Part 3:  Parallel Lines & Escalations

The first season of Rome was the most exciting, addictive season of television I have ever watched.  Ever.  For comparison’s sake, I am going through the entirety of the show Breaking Bad at the moment, and while I think it superb and a better show over all, nothing, and I mean nothing, can match the excitement for me of the first season of Rome.  I watched the show after it had already gone off the air, buying the first season as a boxed set.  Once started on the series, I couldn’t stop.  Each episode is about fifty minutes long, and I was watching nearly four episodes a night, so much so that I could barely get any of my work done (this was when I was still in graduate school).

Part of the great thrill of watching the series was the way Rome seem to escalate the level of conflict from episode to episode, especially in season 1.  My complaints about the quasi-pornographic nature of much the show are mitigated by the marvelous use they made of all the sexual depravity they managed to portray on screen.  That is, rather than mere titillation, each episode seemed to up the stakes for the main characters in the show, episode by episode.  For example, for political reasons, Attia, the mother of Octavian, manages to break up Caesar from his lover, Servilia, the mother of Brutus (yes, the one who eventually kills him).  As revenge, Servilia seduces and beds Attia’s daughter Octavia, and then manages to get Octavia to ply Octavian for information by seducing him!  Sufficed to say, this is all made up, as far as I am aware, but it had the effect of personalizing the conflicts in the story, as sexual partners on both sides of the conflict between Caesar and those who would retain the old republic.  And so as the first season progressed, there was a perfect parallel between the escalating acts of sexual depravity and the escalating acts of political violence, culminating with the assassination of Julius Caesar in the final episode of the first season.  And all of this built around the personal stories of Pullo and Vorenus, whose lives intertwine almost perfectly with the larger political events the show depicts.  It was a virtuoso performance, on so many levels.

The second season was splendid in this regard as well, as if followed the arc of the two main historical figures to emerge as powerful rivals after the assassination of Julius Caesar:  Mark Antony and Octavian.  This too was fruitful, dramatically speaking, since Vorenus was allied with Antony, and Pullo with Octavian, the two major plot lines were linked directly, as in the first season.  But the show really couldn’t sustain the intensity of the first season, for a variety of reasons.  Partly, this had to do with the fact that one of the major sources of tension for Vorenus was removed at the end of the first season, that is his wife.  Much of Vorenus’ arc in the second season surrounded his family, and which was quite good, but I thought there was a bit of a lull after the first few episodes of season two, when compared with the first season.  This is partly because the political story has already shifted:  by first few episodes of season two, Brutus and Cassius have been defeated, and the republic is dead, and it is only a matter of deciding which person, Antony or Octavian, will be the one left standing.  That is, Rome is already imperial in its ethos, and so there is not the same capacity for escalation from the republican to imperial Rome that there was in season 1.  (The added spice of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra–to which the series’ producers gave a rather nice, almost post-modern sheen gloss–somewhat made up for this.) But the story of Vorenus and Pullo was still gripping as the series came full circle, and reinforced the fact that theirs was the central story in the whole show.


Conclusion:  A Good Man is Hard to Find

I’m not sure how well I have described the elements that made Rome so very excellent as a TV series, but these are the main ones I can recall from memory.  And though some of them are peculiar to the story Rome wanted to tell, many of these elements demonstrate how filmmakers can tell an exciting, dramatic story, which is their main responsibility, while at the same time also reaching a fair level of historical authenticity in their work.  Again, the key word here is authenticity, as opposed to accuracy.  In general, unless it has to do with visual accuracy, storytellers, writers of fiction, filmmakers, should always choose authenticity over factual accuracy if they are forced to choose, in order to fulfill the demands of their craft.  Rome is a wonderful example of how filmmakers, if they take the care to do so, can accomplish this.

Finally, I just wanted to end with a bit of speculation about the themes in the series.  A few curious elements caught my attention.  In the first season, we begin with Vorenus and Pullo on campaign in Gaul, but as they enter Rome in the second episode, we see Antony having sex with a shepherdess in front of her flock.  I mention this because a similar image occurs at the end of season 1, when Pullo and his wife Irene go outside the city to the country, and the last shot we see of them is the pair walking hand in hand, past a flock of sheep.  Whether there is anything to this I can’t be sure, but the image doesn’t recur in the second season.  And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t something there about the city vs. pastoral life, between being inside the city vs outside.  Certainly, the show takes place in the second season mostly in Rome, mostly in one area of Rome, the Aventine Hill, but I couldn’t help thinking there was something going on there.  Perhaps it was related to another theme that came through even more clearly to me, which is the idea of who is a “good man” or not.  The phrase occurs several times throughout the series, especially in the last episode.  There, Cleopatra asks Vorenus if Titus Pullo is a “good man,” and Vorenus replies “define good.” (And yes, not to spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen the show, but Pullo knows Cleopatra intimately, another one of those very fictional elements in the show).  And at the end, in discussing Vorenus, both Pullo and Octavian agree he was a “good man.”  I think what might be going on here is the not so subtle message in the series that the friendship between Vorenus and Pullo is more important than their relationships with the “great men” of politics, that friendship is of more enduring value than the power games their social superiors are caught up in (and which all, save for Octavian, die from).

This too might have something to do with the show’s sort of working class ethos, mentioned above, with regards to one last thing that caught my attention.  In the first season, Julius Caesar seems to want to do more than “play” at being a god in his triumph, something emphasized by his reaction to Antony pointing out how absurd the whole charade was:  “I am not playing.  This is not a game.”  The motif of men pretending to be gods comes out again, when Antony accuses Octavian of trying to portray himself as divine by having Julius Caesar posthumously declared a god in the second season (which Octavian did in fact do).  Then finally there is question of Caesarion, Julius Caesar’s love child by Cleopatra, who of course believes himself to be divine, but whose actual parentage is revealed to be much humbler in the end.  I point all this out because I couldn’t help thinking that the show’s creators, with their keen sense of the difference between the pre-Christian and Christian worlds, weren’t tweeking the idea of a divine-human savior who comes to save mankind at the end of the series.  The final episode was title “De Patre Vostro (About Your Father), and I just couldn’t help thinking that this was a cheeky, skeptical gloss on the birth of Christ.  If it was, it was a fitting end to the show, which though I obviously disagree with that skepticism, still gives you a sense of the dynamism and verve that it provided its viewers.  And now, if you haven seen the show yet, go ahead and treat yourself.  You will not be disappointed.

Alypius Minor

Rome & The Rise of the Historical Soap Opera, Part I

•January 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The title for this post is at least a little misleading. The HBO/BBC television series Rome was not the first television series to trade on the more lurid aspects of history for entertainment purposes. The BBC, with series like Elizabeth R and I, Claudius, has long been in the business of making history entertaining.  But there does seem to have been a run on historically based series on cable channels in the last ten years or so.  Besides Rome, there was the previously reviewed Tudors, The Borgias, a Viking show called, rather unimaginatively, The Vikings, a completely wretched attempt at a king Arthur retelling called Camelot, a series set in the Wars of the Roses called The White Queen, based on the novels of Phillipa Gregory, and, of course, Downton Abbey.  You might even be able to plausibly insert Game of Thrones into this mix, fantasy though it is, as it is still inspired by a vision of medieval life.  And that is just on the European/Canadian side of things.  In the US, there has been Deadwood (a Western), as well as Boardwalk Empire (a gangster show, set in 1920s Atlantic City).  One might also count the multi-episode mini-series base on Ken Follet’s novels, Pillars of the Earth (2010) and World Without End (2012) in this mix.  In short, history has been selling quite well in the television world.

I say that tongue in cheek, mind you; I have not seen most of these, but sufficed to say, their quality varies, in terms of their presentation of the history involved.  But I don’t think I am remiss in saying that what initially set off this run on what are essentially historically based soap operas, was started by Rome.  Its success in 2005-2007 seemed to have spawned The Tudors and its ilk.  And for my money, Rome is not only the most historically accurate of these soap operas, it is also the most compelling television show I have ever watched.   In this post and its sequel, will go over what made it so compelling to me, both historically and dramatically speaking.  Because of the length of what I’m about to say, I will talk about those parts in Rome that didn’t work as well as they might have in this first part, and the second post will delve into what the series did well. Both, however, are instructive as to what makes a successful historical drama both entertaining and authentic.


Roma Aeterna

If you have never seen the show, it is set in the late republican period, near the end of Julius Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, about the year 52 BC (or BCE, if you prefer).  The show follows the trials and tribulations of two soldiers–Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo–who fight in Caesar’s legions, and the backbone of the show is their friendship with all of its ups and downs, throughout the major events of the last years of the republic, ending the with the ascension of Octavian as emperor (or princeps, to be more precise).

Rome has been a favorite subject of filmmakers since the inception of that art form, and there have been many notable attempts to portray that most hallowed of ancient civilizations on the big screen.  Among the best that come to mind are Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, and the film The Last Days of Rome; Rome also finds itself something of a focus in Ben Hur, as well as the, to my mind at least, less successful Antony and Cleopatra.  The most recent effort readers are likely to be familiar with is Gladiator, from our old friend Ridley Scott, which was a delightful film with delightful performances set in a most distorted version of Roman history.  The man is most consistent in this regard.  (And of course, before Hollywood was ever conceived, Shakespeare had given us several wonderful evocations of Roma Aeterna, many of which have been turned into fine films.  Julius Caesar is the best of these, the 1950s version starring James Mason, Sir John Gielgud and Marlin Brando.)

This obsession with Rome is not surprising; the history of the Roman state and its peoples is dramatic both in its rise to power and its fall, and makes for a rather ready made story for artists and filmmakers to work with.  No doubt, many more such films are sure to be made in the future, which is something that makes me rather glad, the spotty record of Hollywood in this regard notwithstanding.  One can never get enough of Rome on film, in my humble estimation.


Why Rome is Great:  A Preliminary Word

I felt compelled to do this in my review of The Tudors, and I think I have to do it in this context as well.  Let me be clear about what I am saying when I say Rome is the best historical depiction on film, feature or series, that I have ever seen.  I am not saying the series was a replacement for history, or that it is equivalent to a history of the period it depicts.  Every film or television show has to make a trade-off at some point between historical accuracy and dramatic structure.  Some aspects of the historical record will inevitably be downplayed, left out, exaggerated, distorted, or twisted to suit the narrative that the filmmakers have chosen to pursue. A historian cannot do this, as it would violate the basic tenets of his profession; a filmmaker must do this, or else he will violate the basic tenets of his profession.  Whereas in the one case, historical truth, no matter how boring undramatic it may be is the goal, in the other it is a dramatic truth is what is pursued (i.e., that which will bring catharsis to the audience).  As the saying goes, there is only one rule in movie making:  don’t be boring.  Once someone understands this, and accepts the limitation of the art form, then they can enjoy historical films without having to writhe with indignation at every historical howler that comes up.  (If you can’t do this, these probably means you have been to graduate school and likely a history major.  My condolences to you.)

What I am saying is that the makers of Rome balanced these two goals-historical accuracy and dramatic engagement-better than anything I’ve ever seen on screen, be it a feature or a series.  I will follow the same basic format as in my review of the Tudors, examining the Bad, the Ugly, and the good in their turn.


The Bad:  Pretty Sure Rome Invented a New Category of Pornography

That is to say, somewhere in between hard and soft core porn.  And I mean this quite literally:  if you can’t handle repeated scenes of raunchy sex (in virtually every single episode), occasionally full nude shots (male and female) you probably won’t make it through Rome.  I found myself skipping over those scenes as time went by, and perhaps that is a way that one could watch the series if that sort of thing mortally offends you.  And though I will defend the show’s graphic depictions of sexuality (for historical reasons), I do think they did not have to go as far as they did in order to make the show work.  But this was a cable TV venture, so it’s not like it was unexpected, nor was it totally out of line with the story they wanted to tell.

And that story was partly about the decadence of Rome toward the end of the republic.  The show’s creators rather deftly linked the sexual outrages committed by the show’s major characters (Marc Antony, Octavian, etc.) to the political outrages they committed as well.  In that sense, the whole arc of the show represented an almost traditionally Roman morality tale about the decline of traditional Roman virtues, despite the lurid depiction of it throughout the series.  From what I know of Roman history, they probably overdid it a bit, since to my recollection the worst sexual and moral excesses of the ruling classes occurred during the Imperial period, but still, the kernel of truth makes the extremity of the series defensible (to a point, anyway).  There is also another good reason for this, which I will wait to explain, since it relates to something that the show’s creators did quite well.

Aside from the sexual extremities, there are plenty of exaggerations and unlikely scenarios peppered throughout the series.  Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo fall into every single major event in the late republic, which is historically absurd, though it was wonderful TV.   Also, the shows producers made a point of playing up the influence of women in the show, which though it is true women always had influence behind the scenes, even in patriarchal Rome, they probably played up a bit too much to be historically accurate.   To give an example, Attia, the mother of Octavian, is portrayed as having practically made him into the man who became emperor.  In the show’s last episode, his sister Octavia says on the day of Octavian’s triumph that this day was “as much hers as his,” which is historically preposterous.  I understand the need to do this (the show was, despite its quality, still a soap opera) but there was just a bit too much “girl power” in the series for my taste.

And finally, certain aspects of ancient Roman society tended to get elided for various reasons.  The most glaring of these is the way that family obligations were sometimes depicted:  the show points out, rightly, that marriage was primarily a public not private (personal) bond in the ancient world, at least for the upper classes.   But then Marc Antony is depicted as a sort of perpetual playboy, who only marries Octavia for political reasons in the series, but is otherwise portrayed much like a 21st century bachelor living the high life.  In fact, Marc Antony was married something like three times before he wed Octavia.  Nor could he have avoided it:  being a member of the aristocracy meant having to produce heirs.  The sense of divide between public and private of ancient peoples differs from our own, obviously, and sometimes that difference is difficult to depict and tell a great story on top of it.  But then this was, to my recollection, the only major instance of such an erasure in the series, though there may have been others.

There were other, minor offenses against historical accuracy.  The worst of these, which, for the purposes of not spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I won’t describe in detail, involves the parentage of Caesarion, the love child of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.  There are likely others which I have forgotten, but they in no way affect the overall historical quality of the show, which was on the whole excellent.


The Ugly:   Damn Furraners!

There was in Rome precious little of what I call “on the nose” history; that is, dialogue written solely for the purpose of conveying historical information to the audience, for context.  The only example I can think of is when, in the second season, Marc Antony accuses Octavian of attempting to aggrandize himself by having Julius Caesar posthumously proclaimed a god, which in fact he did, and which I am sure most of the people watching the show when it was broadcast probably did not know.  Early in the first episode, a young Octavian explains the growing rift between Caesar and Pompey to Pullo and Vorenus after a bloody fight; in the last episode, Vorenus has to explain to Cleopatra why Octavian is not going to keep his promises to her, something I’m pretty sure she didn’t need explained for her.  But these were quite rare, and generally didn’t stick out that much.  Part of the reason for this is the quality of the writing, but also the nature of the material the writers were working with.  Modern audiences don’t need a great deal of background to understand the consequences of civil war, even if it occurred in a vastly different society, and so there is less need for greater context than, say, for explaining why sola fide is a cause for violent persecution during the Reformation.

Perhaps the only other “ugly” element in an otherwise beautifully constructed series is something I noticed only after watching the behind the scenes DVD that came with the first season boxed set, and listening to the commentary on some of the episodes provided by the producers of the series.   That is the running theme of Roman xenophobia throughout the film.  In several rather memorable scenes, the xenophobia of plebeian Romans is portrayed with a gusto which is…interesting, to say the least.  The best example of this is in the second season when, after the death of Julius Caesar, the collegia (gangs) who more or less run the city, are fighting each other over territory.   One of the main characters calls for a truce, and a meeting of all the gangs.   This is announced via the priest of the goddess Concord, who goes through the streets announcing a halt to the violence.  Just then, three gang members stand around and question what is going on, two of whom are Roman and a third a foreigner with an obvious accent.  Their dialogue something like this:

Gang #1:  What the fuck’s all this then?

Gang #2:  Don’t know.

Foreigner:  Let’s ask the priest then, he’ll know.

Gang #1:  You can’t talk to a priest of Concord.

Foreigner:  Why not?

Gang #1:  Because you can’t you fuckin’ savage.  (to Gang #2).  Foreigners.  (Gang #2 nods his head knowingly)

The little scene depicts perfectly the native’s contempt for foreigners who aren’t aware of their customs, even when they are not able to give them any rational explanation.  But it also suggests something else.  The first gang member is a minor character, Memio, who speaks with a strong cockney accent through his time in the series.   Most of the cast in the film is either English, Scottish, or Italian, but I noticed while watching the behind the scenes commentary that some of the shows producers spoke with what sounded like working class English accents.  My point is that there was some definite transference going on between working class English mannerisms and cultural ideals onto the plebeian class of Rome in the show.   For the most part, I thought this was a brilliant stroke, and some of the scenes, like the one depicted above, are quite funny in a way, and the Romans were most certainly xenophobic.  However, the makers of the series almost seemed a bit too much enthused about those scenes, and one could call that an “ugly” part of the series, though I would not myself.

That, for the most part, describes what I thought could have been improved or what was slightly off about the show.  In our next installment, I will discuss what Rome and its producers got right-which turns out, is quite a bit.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance & the Meaning of Christmas

•December 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I was visiting my family for Christmas, and being at home with nothing much to do on Christmas Eve, I began surfing the television for something to watch.  (It was interesting to note how few Christmas themed movies seemed to be running these days.  Whether this is caused by the decline in Christian belief in Western society or simply the enormous number channels catering to diverse tastes, I cannot tell.)   In the course of flipping channels, I came across a film I have long admired but was surprised to see being shown on Christmas Eve:  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  For those of you not familiar with this film, it was a Western, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin, it tells the story of Ransom Stoddard, a distinguished senator from a Midwestern state who goes back home to attend the funeral of Tom Donovan.   When pressed by local newspaper men to tell them why he came to his funeral, Stoddard tells them the story, which forms bulk of the film, of how he became the “man who shot Liberty Valance,” since it was Stoddard’s shooting of a Midwestern gunman, the titular Liberty Valance, that started his political career.  The film reveals that Stoddard did not kill Liberty Valance, and that Donovan, the man whose funeral he has come to, was the one who did so.  The film was the last by renowned filmmaker John Ford, and was not terribly well received at the box office when it came out, partly because of its melancholy and somber tones.  It seemed a rather odd choice to be running on Christmas Eve, but it was part of the “John Wayne” marathon on the channel I happened to be watching.  I’m glad that I did, as it gave me matter and occasion for reflection on the meaning of Christmas, especially for a Western Christian in this era of dissipating belief.

Liberty Valance

Liberty Valance and the Man who shot him

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has long been one of my favorite films, but I had not seen it in a very long time, partly because it is such a dark film in many ways.  But I was surprised on watching the film again, that it was mere an emotionally engaging film.  It has definite themes—a “controlling idea” if you recognize the phrase—which I had not noticed before.  Let me explain.  The film begins with Stoddard telling his story, about how he came from the eastern U.S. to make his way west, and his coach was set upon by Liberty Valance and his thugs.  Wounded, and with no money, he is taken in by Tom Donovan, who sets him up washing dishes in a local restaurant to pay him back. There, Stoddard meets and begins to fall for Halley, a young woman whom he teaches to read and write but whom Donovan intends to marry.  Meanwhile, Stoddard tries to practice as a lawyer, putting up a shingle outside the local newspaper office.  He also has a couple of run-ins with Liberty Valance, who is not a mere bandit but is hired by large cattle ranchers to terrorize people in the town of Shinbone, the place where the film is mostly set.  The cattle ranchers want the territory (they never explain which) to remain as it is, since they control most of the land in that situation.  However, at the election for territorial representative, Stoddard is elected on a platform of asking Congress for statehood.  It is this incident which leads to the climactic scene of the film; Valance nearly beats to death the newspaper editor, Dunton Peabody, who was elected along with Stoddard, and challenges Stoddard to a duel that night.   Stoddard would almost certainly have been killed, but Donovan, from an alley opposite, fires a rifle and kills Liberty Valance, in order to save Stoddard’s life, even though it means losing Hally to Stoddard.  So thus, Stoddard both gets the girl, and makes his reputation, from Donovan’s act of murder but also of self-sacrifice.

The film is depressing, since Donovan fades from memory, while Stoddard goes on to an illustrious career in the Senate.  This much one could probably sense from the narrative of the basic plot lines I have just recapitulated.  But watching the film again, I notice the quite obviously socio-political theme running through the film.  Stoddard says at the beginning of the film that he obeyed Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man” literally, and the battle between Valance and the townspeople he terrorizes is portrayed as one between civilization and barbarism, between the advance of equality, law, order and democracy, on the one hand, and between inequality, authoritarianism, and violence, on the other.  Thus the film is on one level about the so-called “closing of the west,” the taming of the frontier by “civilization,” and herein lies the interest in what I have called the film’s controlling idea.   What is that idea?  It is that civilization—law, order, and all the restrictions that go with it—is based upon violence—specifically, the expulsion of violent, disorderly elements, in this case, Liberty Valance.   This is suggested by the course of action in the film, and by its main characters:  Stoddard represents “civilization,” with his literacy, law degree, and east coast pedigree, whereas both the main he displaces and the man he purportedly kills, belonged to the older, more violent west.  Both Donovan and Valance are gunmen, and though Donovan is generally more kind and less brutal, he has no qualms about killing Valance in cold blood to protect his loved one, Halley.   His is still the law of the gun, even if he is a better man than Valance.  And so story is as much about the disappearance of men like them as it is about Stoddard, in fact, more so, since his whole career is based upon something he did not do.   The film suggests the success of civilization is dependent upon such violence, and perhaps its occultation into myth as well.  At the end of the film, when Stoddard has finished telling his tale to the newspaper man, the editor rips up his notes, and tells him he won’t print the story.  Why?  “Because this is the west, sir.  When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Civilization is based upon violence, but people cannot do without violence or myths of violence, the film seems to say.

What on earth does any of this have to do with Christmas?  Well, for those readers of my blog who are not Christians, or only tenuously so, perhaps only in a cultural sense of the term, let me recount again the meaning of it.  The Christian story is about God, the one and only God, the God of the Israelites, the creator of the universe, becoming one with mankind, by becoming an historical, flesh and blood human person, Jesus of Nazareth.  This is what we call “the Incarnation.”  The whole point is that God, by taking on mankind’s nature, made it possible for all of humankind to be saved from sin, and death, and all their consequences, including that of violence.  We are apt, in this very sentimental age, to mistake the significance of this stupendous event, by focusing too much on the nativity itself, on the baby Jesus.  It often just seems like a fairy story of some kind, in the various saccharine forms that it takes in our popular culture.   It must seem, to those who are not familiar with it and with the religious ethos that the Gospel displaced, as if it no different than any of those tales of Hindu deities descending to earth as avatars, as they were sometimes wont to do according to the sacred writings of that great religion.  But this is not the case at all.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance makes this plain, for it is a good summation of both pre and postmodern views of human civilization.   It reminds me of the work of the French scholar, René Girard, who made his name popularizing what he called the “scapegoating mechanism” and its role in the founding of human society.   Simply put, Girard’s theory posited that every human civilization that has ever existed—all of them—were originally created by a founding act of murder.  According to Girard, in response to some sort of crisis, a group of people became a society by sacrificing a single person, as expiation for the contagion that had afflicted them, whatever it might be.  Girard’s evidence for this theory was the myths of ancient societies; on his reading, all of them are records, sometimes explicitly, sometimes only implicitly, of real acts of murder which took place historically.  One does not have to work too hard to make the stories of Romulus and Remus, Chronos and Zeus, Marduk and Tiamat, fit into this theory, but Girard ingeniously made the point that creations myths often contain accounts of gods disappearing in some fashion or another, and argued that we should read them as the occulted record of founding murders, assuming the “god” in question was someone who was put to death by the community.  Now, leaving aside the untestability of such an idea, the evidence of archeology, which has documented the disturbing recurrence of human sacrifice in ancient societies, and common human experience, which tells us that human communities all too often try to identify scapegoats to make their problems go away, is enough to convince me of the truth of such an idea.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance seems to exemplify such an idea perfectly:  in its world, a founding act of violence must be committed so that law and order can flourish, and the perpetrator of the act becomes  a mythic hero because of it.  One can only displace economies of violence by other, more manageable systems of violence—violence according to law, and its ideals of order.  According to Girard, all myths do this—except for one.


The (deserving) scapegoat

The “myth” that does not enshrine this violence at the heart of its story is that of the Christian story of Jesus.  In it, instead of the sacrifice to save the community from destruction, we get, according to Girard, the story of such a sacrifice told from the perspective of the victim.  This is what makes the Christian story unique:  instead of validating such a sacrifice, it unmasks the motives of whose those who carried it out, and reveals the innocence of the victim—and thus calls into question all the other myths that have been told.  The Gospel is a sort of mythic anti-myth on Girard’s telling, one which de-mythologizes them by revealing something that no one else had noticed before—that they were always told from the perspective of the community which had put the victim to death.   (What Girard doesn’t to my knowledge point out is why the myth of the scapegoat seems so plausible, and thus why it has rarely been called into question; namely, that most people know everyone is guilty of committing crimes against the community, even if they do not commit the ones for which they are put to death.   That is why Jesus, in the gospel narrative, must be a “spotless” victim:  he must be sinless, otherwise his death could always go on being justified because of the taint of sin.   On the completely sinless victim could proclaim the innocence of those who were not sinless.)  And thus, instead of the sacrifice of the scapegoat uniting and bringing the community together, it leads to the restoration of that victim in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The promise that all of the victims unjustly slain may rise again, because Christ was raised from the dead, is part of the legacy of Christianity.  It thus promises restitution, justice and reconciliation for all those unknown scapegoats that have been slaughtered throughout the bloody annals of human history.  This is the meaning of Christmas, the promise of the Incarnation:  that a civilization based upon peace, not violence, came to the world, brought by God himself, who became a helpless child, and suffered himself to live in obscurity, as an Oriental provincial in a backwater of a great empire, to labor as a menial worker, and then to go out and preach this news of salvation, only to be tortured to death, and who was raised to show men that this need not be so.


When legend becomes fact, print the legend

In history, of course, this idea has not yet been realized.  But that it was brought into the world by the Christian faith is undeniable.   Christianity is often blamed for not realizing it, and there is some justice in the charge; for to bring such an idea into the minds of men, and then to fail to deliver on such a promise, must needs lead to a great deal of disillusionment and disenchantment among the people affected by this belief.  As indeed it has.  The fruits of it can be seen all around us in modern society.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance exemplifies this disillusion perfectly:  there is no hint of any other redemption from the violence and chaos produced by human life other than by the economy of violence  introduced by law and its attendant myths.  The will of the stronger is still the operative principle of modern, democratic societies, which must mythologize the violence they perpetrate to maintain order.  Tom Donovan must be forgotten so we can mythologize Ransom Stoddard, and so sustain order against the threats posed by the Liberty Valances of the world.   Against this, the Gospel proclaims the savior, lying in a manger, forced hither and thither by the power of Rome, who yet sparred in peace with his persecutors, spoke peace to them (and some of them even listened), lived and died in the peace that comes with doing, not the will of the stronger, but the will of the Father in heaven.   Against a world in which there is only violence set upon violence, in which there is only so much love which must be parceled out, in which Tom Donovan must not only be unremembered but unloved (for the substitution of Stoddard for Donovan is two-fold:  Stoddard gets the accolades and the woman Donovan desired) Jesus in his birth, life, death, and resurrection proclaims the Father’s infinite love for all the forgotten, for all those deemed unlovable by the world—yes, even murderers such as Liberty Valance, if they will repent (he never repents, and some never do, but not all).  And this is the choice that still confronts us today, the choice we still have to make, and for all those who bear the name of Christian and seek to follow Christ, John Ford’s somber western, it turns out, is a good reminder of why Christ came to earth, and of the hope, with all its promise and peril, that accompanies those who choose the child savior over the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Christ is born, Alleluia!



Alypius Minor


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