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‘Domesticating’ Roman Religion on the Contemporary Screen

Emily Chow-Kambitsch

University College London (UCL)

This paper will discuss representations of Roman private religious practice and domestic ritual in contemporary screen narratives, in order to address a correlation between characterizations of Roman religion in popular culture and in classical scholarship. Mid-twentieth-century ‘sword-and-sandal’ films projected the visually magnificent and imposing Roman state religion as emblematic of Rome’s systematic persecution of Jewish and Christian protagonists. Gladiator (2000) initiated the greatest resurgence of ancient Roman films since the 1960s, and markedly departed from mid-century representations of Roman religion. Gladiator championed a model of private, domestically localized Roman piety, which subsequent screen texts would emulate, in fascinating resonance with the expansion of scholarly attention to private religious practice in the Roman world.

This new model of Roman religiosity is apparent in Gladiator and Rome (2005, television series). In both narratives, pagan religious practice contributes to the development of the protagonists’ Roman identity, a central and positively connoted character dimension. (This stands in contrast to the sword-and-sandal model, in which the protagonist achieves liberation from Roman cultural hegemony, often through conversion to Christianity.) This contemporary model also provides a religious domestication, and moral re-funnelling of ‘rehabilitated’ Roman villains from familiar mid-century cinematic narratives (i.e. Messala’s characterization in the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur). Through these brief examples, this paper will trace the contemporary face of Roman paganism: a source of sympathy, wherein Roman religious practice provides an access point for audiences to the emotional life of characters, and to a high level of cultural sensitivity for Rome which Hollywood traditionally discouraged.

The aforementioned examples of this paradigm shift in the screening of Roman religiosity will be evaluated for their reflection of developments in scholarship on Roman religion. The spiritually apathetic, mindlessly ritualistic Romans of mid-century films rather crudely exhibit the character of state religion drawn by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scholars as a collective performance of rituals carrying little spiritual significance as a result of imperial expansion and moral decline (Mommsen, 1868; Wissowa, 1912). In Gladiator (2000), protagonist Maximus exhibits acts of individual piety out of concern for his family, in balance with his ability to honorably serve the res publica. This representation is certainly in keeping with recent scholarly approaches to the performance of sacra privata as in emulation of, or at least strongly related to the sacra publica (e.g. Scheid, 1985). In the television series Rome, Andreas Bendlin’s (2000) ‘market model’ of individualized religious practice reigns supreme, wherein practitioners participate in a relationship of reciprocity with a number of deities to address individual concerns, including health, prosperity, familial stability, and romantic interests. As in Bendlin’s model, service to the state, and the replication of sacra publica are often not the first priority of Rome’s sympathetic protagonists.

Renewed scholarly focus on Roman private religious practice and domestic religion in particular (Bodel and Olyan, eds. 2012) continue to result in screenwriters’ conflation of individual piety with crucial scenes of character development (e.g. Messala’s worship of penates and subsequent social alienation in Ben-Hur, 2016). In scenes of propitiatory rituals, characters communicate fears, desires, and motivations, knowledge to which only the gods (and the audience) are privy. Yet arguably, these contemporary drawings mislead audiences seeking to understand pagan religious experience. They prioritize the emotional experience of religious devotion, and the exploration of faith, both characteristically Judeo-Christian conceptions of the relationship between human and divine. Scholars have casually observed the christianization of Roman religion onscreen in isolated case studies (Seo, 2008), and its association with what I term the ‘domestication’ of religious practice—the primary localization of it within the household, or the use of it to address domestic concerns relatable to modern audiences (Solomon, 2004; Cyrino, 2004). This paper will explore the pervasiveness of this phenomenon in contemporary screen narratives, and place it in dialogue with scholarly trends that may have helped to engender it.

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Gender and Reception

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