Aside from using local news to gain an understanding of local culture and geography, when I have not been busy doing errands I have been seeking to catch up on some of the culture I missed while out of the country. Included in that is a miniseries called Rome from HBO. I am of two minds concerning this particular series. As a historian with a particular interest in the Roman Empire and in ancient history in general, I happen to appreciate the research and authenticity of the portrayal of a wide swath of Roman culture and society, looking at the life of plebs and patricians, wealthy and more modest folks, in rather graphic realism. The moralist within me decries the depravity of the period, the corruption and exploitation that filled Rome at all levels.
When we are in Rome, do we do as the Romans do? Do we use the places we travel to as an excuse to let go of our standards and adopt more relaxed local mores, do we seek to remake other places in our image and deny the freedom of people to choose how they are going to live and accept the consequences for themselves, or do we seek some middle path where we appreciate diversity in culture and behavior without being inauthentic to our own worldview. I have generally sought the middle road, as difficult as it is to appreciate what is alien, remain different from those around without being too corrupted by my environment, and remain virtuous even when that virtue is not recognized or appreciated. I have not done this perfectly, but I have done my very best. And that is all that we can do, in the end, with all the encouragement and support we can get from God and others.
All too often being in “Rome” is an excuse for people to live according to their inclinations and not according to the standards that they and others normally hold them too. This is the grim picture painted by Nickel Creek’s song “When In Rome,” which talks about doctors refusing their help to the needy because they don’t know to seek him out, of people burning books and threatening harm to teachers simply for seeking to instruct others about truth, and reflecting on the discomfort of the dead who spent their lifetime trying to adapt to Rome and have to face the threat of divine judgment . We all have to be conscious of the extent to which we are living down to our surroundings and our environment and not living up to our standards, while avoiding being self-righteous. Our virtue must combine moral excellence with a compassion for others, even those who wrong us, something that is way harder than it should be to practice even in part.
In the end, whether we choose to be strangers or citizens of Rome, we have to live with the consequences. Do we embed ourselves within wicked and corrupt systems? If so, we will make ourselves the enemy of the truth and those who preach and practice it. Do we reject the corruption of the world around us and seek to live according to standards of virtue and decency, regardless of how others behave? If so, we will be threatening to those who are corrupt and decadent, especially if we are foolish enough to be outspoken about our hostility to corruption. Even living a godly and honest life quietly can be taken as an implicit condemnation of the corruption that is around, for so it is. We will either be judged by mankind or God if we are in corrupt and evil times. When in Rome, we simply must choose where we stand, come what may.