Sword & Sanity in Ancient Rome

Recently, I finished watching the HBO series Rome, which I am pleased to say, was a joy to watch. Now that I have completed the series I am left both satisfied and wanting more at the same time. It was well written, the acting was topnotch, and both the set and costume design were lavish in presentation. Casting a critical eye at the show I have to admit I have nothing to complain about, or negative to say. Though I admit it would have been great to have seen more of the adventures of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus.

Interestingly enough, the series portrays the use of sorcery and black magic quite realistically, and the way I like to think it actually works. The character Servilia of the Junii is a scorned lover of Julius Caesar, and she wastes no time seeking out a sorcerous means of revenge against the entire Julii family. As the series progresses the viewer is left to interpret the fall of Caesar, and other misfortunes that befall the Julii family, as he wishes. Of course, I only saw the insidious nature of her sorcerous curse, as it slowly brought temporary ruin to the Julii, and insanity upon Servilia herself. Her obsessive need for vengeance compels her to manipulate everyone around, including her son Marcus Junius Brutus, and ultimately drives her to her own doom. Surely this was the sorcery doing its dark work...

As I was watching the series I could not help but think of the Richard L. Tierney stories involving Simon of Gitta, also referred to in the bible as Simon Magus. These stories are collected in the Chaosium anthology Scroll of Thoth, and are an excellent example of a genre of cosmic-horror-infused-fantasy that I call sword & sanity. Tierney pays deep homage to both H.P. Lovecraft as well as Robert E. Howard, as these tales are pure sword & sorcery with a Cthulhu Mythos backdrop.

In the stories Simon is a Samaritan, an ex-gladiator as well as a sorcerer, and they tell of his adventures set in ancient Rome. Tierney goes to great lengths to adhere to historical and biblical records in these tales. Interestedly, he finds very creative ways to mix the Christian (specifically Gnostic) belief system with the Cthulhu Mythos. He also manages to strike a balance between the Lovecraftian “uncaring universe” philosophy with the revisionist “good vs. evil” philosophy of August Derleth. Not an easy thing to do.

Tierney also likes to remind everyone he is a fan at heart, and hides a generous amount of easter-eggs for those in the know. One of the more obvious references has Simon hearing about a sword that was once owned by an ancient Aquilonian king

I have to admit I am a sucker for historical fantasy. Stories like those found in the Scroll of Thoth really evoke a heady sense of mystery and wonder in me. It is as if there was a secret history that went untold, and was forgotten by time, only to be rediscovered and given to the reader to glean its secrets. For those interested in a more historical approach to their sword & sorcery gaming there are plenty of supplemental materials out there that can help you bring these lost ages to your game table. Green Ronin Publishing has the Mythic Vistas series. More specifically, and in keeping with the theme of this article, take a look at Eternal Rome and Testament: Roleplaying in the Biblical Era. Back in the day TSR offered several books in their Historical Reference series, which are easy to attain and should come fairly cheap as well.

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