The Underestimated Nuances of Pompeii

MARCH / APRIL 2015: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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I am fascinated by Ancient Rome’s contradictions, as a politically advanced society built on barbarism, yet poly-theistic in its religious beliefs. The greatest single empire in history, Rome was surprisingly open-minded… as long as you submitted to her authority. She embraced all who bent the knee and none that didn’t. She took over nations and absorbed their cultures into a collective belief system, seeing their gods as equal deities and establishing order … under the will of Rome. Submit or die. Many submitted; others defied, but one way or another, for a long time, Rome ruled most of the known world.

The Roman Empire is great movie material but the city of Pompeii, until recently, was untapped… a natural disaster that defeated the Romans by wiping out the city in twelve hours. Prior to the devastation, no one knew what a volcano was or what it could do. Like many successful epics, Pompeii makes the disaster personal through its characters; it allows them to play symbolic roles in addition to being human. I did not like it at first, feeling it too closely resembled Gladiator, but in time I came to see that it’s more about resistance to Roman occupation than it is a tragedy or even a romance. It’s as much about adversity as an exploration of the only force mightier than Rome: Mother Nature. She wreaks havoc as our romantic leads fight for their right to love one another against human adversaries.

The characters are divided into two symbolic factions: those who represent different aspects of Roman culture and those portraying civilizations and individuals who resisted Rome.

Senator Corvus embodies the Roman Empire, a brutal, unyielding force that intends to force all to submit to its will. His interactions with Cassia parallel the promise of Rome to her enemies: he will break her until she “sits, stands, or crawls at my decree!” Neither tolerates disobedience. Much like Rome eradicated rebellious factions mercilessly, Corvus is determined to bring Cassia to heel. His lust is less than his rage over the fact that she refuses to submit to him, as a man and a Roman senator.

Cassia’s resistance is contrasted with her father’s attempts to placate and appease Rome. She is defiant; he is submissive. In the eyes of Corvus, Severus is a second class citizen because he lives in Pompeii. He embodies the non-Roman cultures that chose integration over defiance. He is submissive, humiliated, bullied, and threatened by Corvus, who holds him hostage through his ties to the emperor. The nations that gave in to Rome survived, but at great cost to their personal liberties. Like these ancient cultures for a time, Severus submits, receives unequal treatment in exchange, and in the end, when he finds the courage to rebel, is crushed because Corvus (Rome) is stronger than he is.

Corvus’ “enforcer” Proculus is the Roman army. He acts at the request of those in power, with no ambition other than to serve. The Romans were the greatest military force on earth, so Proculus is the strongest physically of all the characters. He embodies a Roman legion, a ruthless strong arm built to crush all opposition… and he does. He sneers at the idea that Milo will avenge his family by defeating him in single combat; it has never happened before. He has never lost. If it were not for the volcanic eruption, he would have killed Milo. He only dies because of his arrogance in gloating (“gladiators do not die the equal of Romans”). He wins every fight to remind us Rome’s armies were impenetrable, but his death implies the eventual downfall of Rome, crumbling under self-importance. Just as Proculus dies stabbed by the broken hilt of his own sword, the Roman Empire eventually destroyed itself through its own internal decline. The threat came not from without but the excess of the Empire, just as Proculus’ pride kills him.

The heroes of the story embody the spirit of freedom. All seek liberty from enslavement; Cassia from Corvus, Milo from his chains, Atticus from his life as a gladiator. They all fight for their liberty. Cassia must resist the senator, Milo must stand up for himself, and Atticus must win an unfair fight. All of them eventually “die as free men” but not without personal sacrifice. They remind us that nothing worth having is easy to obtain. We can see their struggles as representative of the cultures abused, pillaged, and destroyed that continued to show defiance long after the dust settled… or we can see in their defiance a personal lesson in fighting forces greater than ourselves.

Continued resistance to Rome inevitably rises parallels to the Jewish nation, as one of the last “survivors” of extended conflict with the Romans. Pompeii is set a decade after Titus’ army destroyed Jerusalem. Like the Jews of the period, Milo hasn’t forgotten the murder of his kin at the hands of the Romans. Their blood cries out for justice. The odds are against him; since Rome has the upper hand, he is defeated time and again … but never gives up. God’s people have been persecuted over the centuries, but never give up.

The desire for freedom from literal and figurative shackles is inherent in all of us, as we cry out for a better life than we live in a fallen world. It was never God’s intention for us to be enslaved, but forces greater than us tempt us into slavery. We submit by valuing our desires above all else and sacrificing the liberty Christ offers us in exchange for earthly pleasures. We give in to temptation, and are abused mercilessly. Or we resist and fight for every inch, knowing that enslavement is no way to live. We fight a proverbial Rome, in the spirit of those who came before us. Though enslaved, persecuted, and often killed, Christians through the ages have chosen to remain defiant against evil.

Evil seeks to enslave, to remove freedom, to control, to abuse us in every way possible. Knowing this, the question becomes: do we surrender or do we fight? ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!

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