Gather round now, children. Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, in a magical land called high school, a young freshman was given the option to learn a foreign language. He could have chosen something easy, like Spanish or French, but no; the young lad’s ego was so great, his pretense so wide, that he decided to undertake the king of them all, Latin. Inspired by his intrigue in myth and unfathomably cocky with his clearly vast knowledge Latin after browsing Mahou Sensei Negima spells, he climbed the mountain of Roman literature and dactylic hexameters, slaying the beasts of Virgilian poetry and crossing the perils of the Gallic Wars. While the task was great and the work was long, he rose to challenge by getting high everyday after school. With endearing optimism he waged on. But little did he know that he would be doomed to do reports on Roman baths for all his four years…
As a Latin student for four years, Thermae Romae is my kind of series. It’s short, sweet, and straight to the point: it doesn’t stray far from its established formula, but it works so well and never gets too far in over its head. Now, I admit, that show is a bit one-trick pony which tends to revolve around one solid joke the entire series, but it’s hard to deny the show’s unique charm. It’s general goofiness is only amplified by the charming, simple Flash animation (which still looks a hell of a lot better than Black Rock Shooter somehow) and it’s short, 3 episode length ensures that it’s recurring joke never outstays its welcome.
As someone who was fated to study different Roman baths for his group projects in all of his four at years in high school, I was quite taken aback with how little emphasis Thermae Romae placed on Roman culture. While Thermae Romae does have its cap screwed on tight when it does decide to cover the Roman construct of the baths (there only a few, extremely minor inaccuracies from what I can tell) the show never takes a deep dive into Rome’s bath culture and complex bathing traditions. It may cover a process such as the strigil, but it lacks the traditional build up towards it, such as a quick visit to the tepidarium and calidarium. Sure, many of the characters introduced through Lucius’ job as an architect are found in and outside a Roman bath at one point, but much of the emphasis is given to modern, Japanese baths and Lucius’ fascination with them.
But obviously, it’s exactly this swap in cultural identities which makes Thermae Romae’s portrayal of different cultures so interesting.
In my eyes, Thermae Romae’s greatest and most exploited joke is Lucius’ feelings of self resentment and shame after returning from Japan each time. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that Romans were, at their time, one of the most technologically advanced cultures. However, while this is mostly exploited for comedy purposes, it reveals an important aspect of Lucius: he’s bothered by his inability to keep create something completely tantamount to another culture’s due to his pride and is constantly annoyed by the fact that he cannot fully replicate the depth and complexity of modern-day Japan. No matter how much he tries to copy the future, all of his creations, though admittedly inspired, are undeniably Roman in design. He comes rather close at times, but in the end he fails to create a perfect replica, wallowing in his unreasonable Roman pride. He asserts that the Romans grew to surpass the Greeks, but crumbles in the face of a culture two millenia ahead of his time.
No amount of warfare, no amount of wealth or dominance, can change the fact the culture is a product of the times within which we live. In the future, Lucius makes an unending amount of observations towards the warfare capabilities of the “flat faces” and seeks to use the Romans’ infamous military to assimilate them. However, it’s a futile practice for fairly obvious reasons: the assimilation of a culture and its technology is not limited just by the environment (space), but also by time and the innovation that a millenia brings. Different cultures are always gradually changing and constantly run by perpetual innovation. No matter how many leaps Lucius takes forward into the future, there are no short-cuts to an era of complete technological Renaissance, just a series of imitations. Thermae Romae makes no attempt to disguise it’s simple, zen message: no matter how similar their interests may be, culture lives and thrive on the edge of change. Nothing is certain and nothing is set in stone; with time everything is set to change and even the classics are set up to be surpassed in due time.
But no matter where innovation takes us, we’ll all at least still have our baths.