The Philosophy of HBO’s Rome

My husband and I, always a few years behind on the television front, are watching the HBO series “Rome.” Set in the 1st century BC, the show imaginatively documents the decline of the Roman Republic and rise of the empire beginning with Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon and invade Rome. The main characters, however, are not Caesar, Pompey, and Antony, but rather, two Roman soldiers briefly mentioned in Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic War Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo fictionally raised to prominence as witnesses and sometimes influential factors in major historical events.

What is interesting about Vorenus and Pullo for the purposes of this blog is not their historicity, but rather the way in which they both embody different philosophical viewpoints prevalent in Rome at this time. For the Romans, much like the Greeks, philosophy was not a discipline reserved for scholars, but rather, a way of life. Although different philosophical positions maintained their Greek labels, by the time the show is set at the turn of the millennium, enough Greek philosophy had trickled down to the masses that the distinctions were becoming increasingly blurry. Thus, the way in which an average citizen like Vorenus of Pullo would manifest a philosophical position would not match the ideal set by the school’s Greek founders but would be a sort of combination of different philosophies. Nevertheless, there were important differences between individuals, mainly in the areas of ethics and theology, and we see some of those differences played out in the two characters of Vorenus and Pullo.

Vorenus we might say embodies more Stoic ideals. Stoics are known for their suspicion of emotions, especially in so far as emotions influence reason. We see this especially in Vorenus. His character is constantly striving to keep him emotions in check and to not get carried away by passion. A particularly powerful example of this is when Cleopatra tries to seduce him. He clearly wants to sleep with her, but just as passion is about to get the best of him, he restrains. Virtue for the Stoics is about living rationally, which meant living in accord with nature and maintaining harmony. For Vorenus, this means loyalty to his wife, maintenance of family honor, strict obedience to those in authority, and a careful avoidance of opportunities for passion to get the best of him (he rarely drinks, for example, nor does he make small talk or tell jokes, lest his reason be overcome by jocularity).

One of the distinctive marks of a more Stoic philosophical outlook is piety or devotion to the gods. The Stoics believed that the universe is like a giant living body in which all the parts are connected. What influences one part, influences all, thus they believed strongly in the power of divination, oracles, and providence. This belief was also the basis of the Stoic pantheist theology–all things form a unity which may be called “God” or “Nature” or “Reason” and harmony (and hence virtue) consisted in cooperation and conformation to this unity. Although Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, denied the gods as depicted by popular religion, mythology was nevertheless viewed as a crude and popular expression of the truth. The gods were not like people eating and drinking and carousing, but were rather various parts of nature (e.g. Poseidon was the depiction of what the see naturally did). Still, because of the view of the universe as a body, whatever happened with the “gods” influenced what happened with everything else. Thus, popular forms of Stoicism tended toward superstition and a strong belief in the power of prayer and sacrifice which we again see reflected in Vorenus’ character who is constantly praying to household gods and puts great stock in the value of sacrifice and offerings to the gods.

(We see a purer form of Stoic theology in the character of young Octavian who tells his sister that the gods do not exist, and then clarifies in response to her horror that what he means is that “there may be some unifying force behind nature which we call God” but there were not petty deities caught up in the midst of ordinary human affairs. Of course, Octavian is said to always be reading the Greek philosophers so presumably, he would have a better idea of what Stoics like Zeno thought.)

In contrast to Verenus, we have Titus Pullo who embodies many of the same ideals as the Epicurean philosophers. Epicureans are known as being hedonists, that is, pleasure-seekers, and to an extent, this is accurate. Eupicurus did see the goal (telos) of ethics as pleasure (hedone) but pleasure was not the same as self-indulgence as we understand it today. For Epicurus, pleasure was the avoidance of pain, including the pain that came as a result of self-indulgence (e.g. bloated bellies and hangovers). Still, the reputation of the Epicureans more popularly was as pleasure-seekers with a sort of “carep diem” mentality which we see reflected in the carefree, fun-loving Pullo. The greatest pleasure, however, came from friendship, and this is reflected in the relationship between Pullo and Servenus. Epicurus advocated withdrawing from public life and joining a society of friends; in the show, Pullo actually does live with Servenus and his family. Even when he isn’t sleeping in their home, he is always there (and frequently sleeping on the porch).

The Epicureans did put great value on sense perception or feelings as the basis of all reason, and in this sense, they are quite opposite the Stoics. To perceive something was sufficient for knowledge. However, they were not superstitious. Epicurus wanted to save humanity from the darkness of religion, and thus he rejected oracles, divination, and magic. If the gods did exist, they were not involved in human affairs and could thus be largely forgotten about. Pullo does not pray, nor does he have any devotion to a particular god. We see the difference between him and Servenus when the two are in a ship in the middle of a powerful storm. Servenus assures the crew they will be fine because “a very generous offering was made to Poseidon. Pullo responds, “If Poseidon can’t keep me dry, he can suck my c***.” In fact, Pullo’s whole philosophy can be summarized in the same way Diogenes summarized Epicurean philosophy in around 200 A.D.

Nothing to fear in God;
Nothing to feel in Death
Good pleasure can be attianed;
Evil pain can be endured.

What is fascinating for scholars of ancient philosophy is the way in which philosophy was a discipline for the masses and not just for scholars. We see the ancient idea of philosophy as a way of life played out very well in “Rome.” Individuals like Servenus and Pullo were not reading the writings of Zeno and Epicurus; nevertheless, the ideas of these scholars trickled down and influenced the everyday life of the Romans, including Romans like the apostle Paul, many of whose ideas were undoubtedly influenced by the Greco-Roman philosophy he was enmeshed in. Thus, in order to understand the history and culture and theology of ancient Rome, one must understand its philosophy.


1 comment so far

  1. Peter on

    I really like your interpretation of Vorenus and Pullo, and their friendship. I hadn’t thought to apply Stoicism or Epicureanism to their characters.

    When I watched the series (in a tent in Iraq, as I recall), my lens for interpreting Vorenus was his role as an officer in the Legion. I think there are elements of Stoicism inherent in military leadership – reluctance to show emotion or passion, never complaining in front of your charges, etc. – and so it’s no surprise that I had three different commanding officers recommend the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to me. These characteristics are often referred to as the “Mask of Command,” a reference to John Keegan’s excellent book.

    I was also moved by the depicted friendship between Vorenus and Pullo. Their devotion and loyalty to each other throughout the series are deeply affecting, and feel to me like an authentic depiction of the bonds formed in battle. The bond that exists between those who’ve placed their lives in each others’ hands is rather different than Cicero’s friendship of virtue; soldiers notoriously tend to veer away from the virtuous path. Vorenus is not friends with Pullo out of admiration for his virtue; unless we describe virtue as “being a good friend.” My favorite literary friendship is depicted in Patrick O’Brian’s novels between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin; a relationship that hews much closer to Cicero’s ideal of friendship.

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