Currently on National Review Online, Gerald J. Russello points out that the alternative to Christianity is not universal individual freedom but in fact despotism, violence, and widespread exploitation of people.

Still shot from HBO TV series Rome

In a smart analysis of the overall impression made by the HBO series Rome, Russello, editor of The University Bookman, points out that the show makes a powerful case for Christianity (probably unintentionally) simply by accurately portraying one of the great pagan civilizations. Russello writes,

The most pro-Christian show on television doesn’t have a single Christian character in it — and it couldn’t have. Rome, the hit series now in its second season on HBO, is a surprising affirmation of the Western tradition. While it is packed with sex and violence, its (probably unintended) message is that Rome was desperate for Christianity.

Although recognized by critics as one of the best new shows on television, less frequently noted is how the show rebukes those who would reject the West’s Christian heritage and go back to “neo-pagan” life. In fact, Rome illustrates that historians like Christopher Dawson were correct in emphasizing the revolutionary effect Christianity had on the pagan Roman world.

Russello notes that the program is set in the closing days of the Roman republic, at the end of the first century BC and beginning of first century AD. Russello notes that Rome was a slave society, and that is something very difficult for modern Americans to comprehend. What dominates one’s attention, however, is the stunning prevalence of cruelty and ruthlessness:

Three features stand out, amidst the thrilling story lines, well-crafted battle scenes, and first-rate acting. The first is the casual cruelty of the Roman world. . . .

The Romans did develop a legal culture that is the basis of the Western legal system, including notions of natural law and rights, but that system was harsh: Testimony from slaves in court, for example, was not admitted absent torture. It had not yet been enlightened through the principles of equity that would make their appearance with the Catholic Church’s canon law and admonitions of charity. . . .

Wives and children had almost as low a status as slaves, and again the show portrays harsh realities without exaggeration or superficiality. Husbands could, and did, beat their wives with impunity, their children were only extensions of the father’s will, and the wife was clearly not the equal partner. . . . Women without husbands would become destitute, be sold into slavery, or become prostitutes.

Russello then points out that paganism is not some sort of freedom from religious strictures but is in fact much more demanding than Christianity:

Finally, there is religion. Rome is saturated with it — there are prayers and oaths, offerings made to deities known and unknown, and religious processions and priestly orders. A pagan world, in other words, is not one in which we control the gods, as trendy leftists suppose, but in which we are ever at risk of offending some god for failure to make the right offering or sacrifice. Moreover, these gods rarely provide a guide to conduct or right behavior — they are inscrutable.

Russello’s conclusion is both provocative and intellectually unassailable:

[T]hose wishing to reject the West’s Christian heritage should take a hard look at what that world was like before the arrival of Christianity.

Those interested in developing a better understanding of Christianity’s real effect on civilization should make certain to read Rodney Stark’s brilliant book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. It is a truly brilliant book and will persuade any but the most hardened irrationalists.