Doctor Who: ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ & The Chariots of the Gods

I actually contemplated writing a proper ‘article’ on this subject for a little while, then I decided not to. But, having just rewatched ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ tonight, I can’t help from at least blogging about it. Three bits follow — a synopsis, a discussion of Roman religion, and then the TARDIS of the Gods. Each has a heading in bold if you’d like to skip ahead.

First of all, for those of you haven’t watched the episode, go now. Donna is my favourite of the Doctor’s companions in the 2005 reboot. So she’s obviously worth watching.* And it’s an episode about ancient Roman stuff. So it’s obviously worth watching. And it’s Doctor Who. So it’s obviously worth watching. (Here are my thoughts on the greatness of Doctor Who).

Second of all, watch it. Now.


Third of all, if you’re really determined not to watch it or you’ve forgotten stuff, here’s a brief run-down of the episode. If you remember the episode or don’t care to read the synopsis, skip ahead to the next bold text. The Doctor and Donna, intending to visit ancient Rome, accidentally end up in Pompeii the day before Vesuvius erupts. Caecilius (qui est pater) buys the TARDIS when the Time Lord’s not looking, and when the Doctordonna go to rescue it, they discover that the local augur and Caecilius’ daughter, herself a member of the Sibylline Sisterhood, have actual psychic and prophetic abilities; this goes for all of Pompeii’s fortune tellers and suchlike.

These two in particular say things that make sense and come true. They know that the Doctor is from Gallifrey and Donna, called Noble, is a daughter of London. It turns out that this is because there are creatures called Pyroviles living in Mt Vesuvius and the whole city of Pompeii’s hypocausts (Roman central heating) are connected to the molten core of the volcano, and dust from the Pyroviles is being inhaled by everyone, especially the fortune tellers, who purp0sefully inhale the vapours of the hypocausts. The Pyroviles are enabling Pompeiians to lock into latent human psychic capability; there’s also a rift in time enabling them to see into the future with said capability.

Long story short, in order to save the whole earth from the Pyroviles, the Doctor must sacrifice Pompeii. At Donna’s insistence, he rescues Caecilius and family.** At the end of the episode, we see young Quintus sacrificing to the Household Gods, who are represented by the Doctor and Donna, the TARDIS in the middle.

Doctor Who and Roman religion

What currently interests me in this episode is its relationship to ancient Rome. The religion of ancient Rome, at its ‘primeval’ (I guess?) root, is a religion centred around the numinous. To the Roman mind, the universe is populated by a great variety of numina, of spiritual beings of various sorts (I’ve blogged about this in relation to St Augustine, in fact).

A numen is not necessarily a personalised being or hypostasis, persona, in the way we imagine the Greek Pantheon to be. Vesta is as much the spirit of the hearth as the hearth fire as a personal goddess, for example. Anything and everything could/did have a numen or possibly a genius, if a person or a city. A genius is more of a protecting spirit than the spirit of something itself. So sacrificing to the genius of Rome or of the Emperor is not entirely the same thing as sacrificing to Rome or the Emperor, although I imagine the categories in everyday life and ordinary human speech were not as clear as we want to make them.

A helpful term for this is possibly polydaimonic — many spirits, not many gods, which is polytheistic as we find in Greece. This polydaimonic aspect helps set Rome apart from Greece and helps explain why Romans did not think it quite so strange as post-Judaeo-Christian folks do that such luminaries as Romulus, Julius Caesar, and Augustus were divinised; the gods are at base spiritual creatures — and human persons have spirits of their own, liberated from this mortal coil upon death.

However, by AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted, the worldviews of Greek myth and religion had been assimilated into the worldview of traditional Roman cult surrounding the numinous. Various Roman gods took on the attributes of Greek counterparts, and in some literature lost any ‘Romanness’ at all.

Those are general remarks.

Amongst the numina of the Roman world are the household gods — the lares and penates. Part of daily life was rituals of thanksgiving/appeasement/propitiation/what-have-you of these divinities. To the Roman, completing the rituals exactly was important; if you screwed up, you had to start all over again, otherwise the thing would work. And if it did not work, things would not go well for you, either incurring the wrath of the gods or at least losing their favour. This is why Romans covered their heads when sacrificing — to prevent being distracted; thus this statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus:

The household gods turn up in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, both when Quintus express reluctance concerning propitiating them and at the end when he gives thanks to the Doctor and Donna as gods at the home shrine. Although there are various rituals associated with Roman household gods, this basic daily interaction with said numina is probably at the heart of the religious life of the average Roman — although, with most pre-modern peoples, where does ‘religion’ end and ‘ordinary’ life begin?

Lucius est augur. Caecilius est pater.

Another important part of Roman life was divination — astrology, taking auspices from birds, reading omens in sacrificed animals, discerning various other omens everywhere and at all times, consulting oracles (such as the Cumaean Sibyl, so popular from Vergil’s Aeneid Book VI), at some point the sortes Vergiliana which involve using random lines from Vergil’s poetry to make decisions, and (to give a non-exhaustive list) consulting oracular texts written long ago (or forged in the name of long ago) and contemplating their meaning (Sibylline Oracles or Orphic literature, par example).

‘The Fires of Pompeii’ has this most assuredly. It is the driving force of the action in the story — an official augur and a cult of Sibylline Sisters whose predictions are precise and correct. Although the Doctor refers to Lucius, the local augur, as representing the ‘official superstition’, it is the case that many Romans took the world of divination very seriously, right up to Ammianus Marcellinus, the Emperor Julian, and the pre-conversion Augustine in the fourth century. The numinous, the divine, has left its imprint in the visible world, and this imprint can be assessed and discerned for forecasting future events.

Why Romans (and Greeks — just read Xenophon’s Anabasis for a divination-obsessed guy) were so into divination and omens is a concern for another time. But they were, and the show basically gets this right, although there was never a Sibylline Sisterhood. Sibyls were a non-institutionalised (as opposed to the famous Oracle at Delphi) bunch of mortal, virgin, female seers of far antiquity who were born with the ability to predict the future. They were never organised and, as far as we know, never had a cultus surround them beyond the literature handed down in their names.

‘The Fires of Pompeii’ takes these two basic aspects of daily Roman religion to tell a tale of the destruction of worlds and the burden of the Time Lord.

Chariots (TARDIS) of the Gods?

I must admit that I’ve never read Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? But the argument of the book is that our mythology and concepts of gods are derived from our ancient, primeval contact with aliens. We mistook technology for the supernatural.

This is the basic premise of ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ — and not just the Doctor and Donna as household gods at the end. The Pyroviles are seen by their devotees as gods. Lucius the augur considers them as Vulcan when he meets them. The Sibylline Sisterhood simply refer to them as ‘the gods’.

This is a not uncommon theme for science fiction, and it recurs in Doctor Who in an alien culture with Series 7’s ‘The Rings of Akhaten,’ or similarly in Series 2’s ‘The Satan Pit’. When the Marvel superhero god Thor became a film in Thor (2011), rather than simply being the Aes we knew him to be from The Prose Edda, he was, rather, a member of an extremely long-lived race with an advanced civilisation, mistaken for gods by puny mortals. See also the films/TV shows Stargate (1994), Prometheus (2012), Star Trek: TNG ‘Who Watches the Watchers’ (1989), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and the Wormhole Aliens of Star Trek: DS9, amongst others.

And sometimes God is the final manifestation of Multivac. But that’s something else.

Anyway, point is, this is a not-unheard-of thread in science fiction. Related is the fact that magic is just science that Henry Pym hasn’t explained yet.

What it points to here, when coupled with the Doctor’s reference to augury as ‘official superstition’, is a downplaying of the potential of a vibrant presence of the numinous in our midst. If something’s going on, there will be a materialist explanation for it in most science fiction.

This makes for great stories, and a lot of fun science fiction. But it is still based on the philosophical presupposition of materialism — that matter is all there is. Yet what if it is not?

In the end, although I find a lot of Bajorans really annoying and wished more of Star Fleet had kept themselves skeptical, this is one of the important contributions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that Doctor Who sometimes approaches (though not here), as in ‘The Satan Pit’ (which is ambiguous) and the stories involving pyschics — the question is left blurry. Are these beings what a modernist materialist would recognise as matter or energy, or are they somehow spiritual? How does something exist outside of linear time? Or what if the material can be utterly spiritual? Will new religions not possibly arise, as in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion?

Important questions — which is one of the points of Science Fiction.

The verdict on this episode? A none-too-bad representation of Roman religion in daily life with an imaginary cult and the unsurprising TARDIS of the gods for a lot of good old-fashioned fun, cutting into deep questions not only represented here but also the burden of the Time Lord and why the Doctor needs Donna.

*Actually, sometimes Wilfrid is my favourite.

**Almost wrote ‘et familia’, but that would have implied that he also saved Grumio and the other household staff. He did not.


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