You may have noticed that I haven’t published a podcast since October 26, which means my streak of at least one podcast per week has been broken for the first time since I began on September 20, 2020. I’m sorry for this interruption, for its abruptness, and for the fact that it will continue for a while, for a combination of responsibilities that are also opportunities require me to turn my attention elsewhere. I’ll call this break a “sabbatical,” for I also want it to prepare me for a return to unfinished business regarding Rome. I’ll explain in a minute what I will be thinking about.
I’ve always said that I was working on these podcasts to improve my own understanding of Rome, but if my primary motive was selfish in this sense, I’ve been encouraged that so many of you listeners tuned in. I’m still lagging behind Oprah Winfrey in the polls, but it is reassuring to know that I have not been talking only to myself. I thus hope you will keep an ear out for the resumption of Get Ready for Rome, perhaps with a slower pace of podcast production. In the meantime, my website is still there, and there is a bank of podcasts easily accessible for anyone interested. I just went back and listened to the one on Tacitus and the “Games” in the Colosseum, and—though my judgment may be subject to a certain bias—I thought it raised some good questions and was not content to recite the usual facts about the Colosseum and its games. Most old episodes have links and pictures that might be useful to some.
Before starting this break, I’d like to take stock of where we are. Doing so is always useful, and it will help me remember where to resume.
Many or even most of my podcasts are devoted to specific sites or works of art in Rome, including the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the statues to the Garibaldis on the Janiculum Hill, Bernini’s statues in the Galleria Borghese, the Vittoriano, and about twenty other such subjects. Most of these also help to show why I have provisionally divided Rome into Ancient Pagan, Medieval Christian, and Modern Secular identities. That is, they contribute to the overarching theme I use to bring Rome’s many discrete sites into dialogue with one another, a dialog that sometimes breaks down into a shouting match or is accompanied by open warfare. Culture Wars have a long tradition in the West.
I do not aspire to take up every important site or work of art in Rome—Georgina Masson’s excellent guide mentions a thousand or so—but I have made notes on several more that should be included in a good visit to Rome, whether in person or virtual. Among the Ancient Pagan sites, we need to visit the Pantheon and the Roman Forum, and so too with monuments related to Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Pausing to examine the Temple of Hadrian in Rome and his Villa to the east of the city, would—like the Pantheon—be good ways to learn more about this complicated man, and in the end, it’s as much the men and women as their monuments that reward study. Among the Christian sites, I’m not done with Constantine, and I’d like to add pods on several of the churches with great apse mosaics, not only because they are so intricate, but also because the themes of the mosaics invite a useful contrast with the art in the churches built later, in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Another Christian site that deserves a visit is the Column of the Immaculate Conception, near the Spanish Steps, for it was erected not long before the fall of Papal Rome to the troops the Modern Italy and sheds light on the important disagreements between the leaders of the Italian Risorgimento and the Roman Catholic Church.
I’d especially like to spend some time on the three main Jesuit sites in Rome, the Collegio Romano, Sant’Ignazio, and the Gesù. The latter two sites are excellent examples of churches featuring baroque art, but it is even more important to see that the organization that built them was crucial during the years of the Counterreformation and remains important today, as the current pope would be quick to affirm. Its history is fascinating, and it is striking that the order was suppressed at times in Portugal, France, Spain, and elsewhere, and even the pope suppressed it in 1773, adding that “the name of the Company shall be, and is, forever extinguished and suppressed.” We see here that the Church sometimes practiced cultural cancellation even in its own ranks.
The Jesuits also offer a route to taking up the case of Galileo, for Jesuit scientists were the scientific authorities against whose understanding Galileo’s was tested; and when Galileo was first ordered to “abstain completely from teaching or defending [the Copernican] doctrine . . . or from discussing it. . . [and] to abandon completely. . . the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves. . . ,” it was a Jesuit, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who delivered this unwelcome news to the great scientist. This same Jesuit, a bright and a careful scholar, had also agreed fifteen years earlier that Giordano Bruno should be burned at the stake as a heretic.
With regard to the sites of modern Rome, I gave them a lot of attention at the beginning of this series of podcasts, partly because they are often overlooked, and partly because they help to bring the rest of the Modern West into the conversation, since the pope was kicked out of power in the name of principles like those advanced by the French and American revolutions. I’m almost finished with Modern sites, but we have not yet visited the monument at the spot where the troops of Victor Emmanuel II blasted their way into Rome and ended the long rule of the popes, and a podcast would give me a good excuse to study the opera Tosca more than I have: the coming of modern principles from France to Italy is one of its themes.
Our look at sites related to Mussolini is still incomplete. The Foro Italico and EUR are especially worthy of visits. I consider it important to keep an eye Mussolini and other sites related to the holocaust and World War II, for this can help us remember that the modern period has not been such smooth sailing as to allow us to smile condescendingly at the failures of our predecessors.
As for postmodern Rome, I have not noticed many public works of art that fit this description, but museums often include such works. I mentioned the Modern Gallery in Episode 49, but the MAXXI Museum is dedicated to art of the 21st century, so it is even more contemporary. I’d like to go there and take you along. What we admire in art today may be a guide to how we think about the world we inhabit.
Along with adding new podcasts devoted to specific sites or works, I need to improve the website. I think it’s useful as it is, but I’ll be adding better chronologies and more links to other resources as time permits.
My most important task for the future is also the most difficult. It is to tackle more directly the bigger issues that were the main reason I got started on this project. I mean for example whether there is such a thing as Western Civilization and, if so, whether it is admirable or base, just or unjust, good or bad. Rome has long been at the heart of what we mean by “Western Civilization,” so how we think about Rome is directly related to these larger questions. Difficult or even impossible to answer though they may be, they are ultimately more important than questions about Roman construction techniques, the different weapons used by the various kinds of gladiators, or the intricate designs of the cosmatesque floors of many Roman basilicas.
Adding at least a few podcasts on these larger questions would also help me keep from feeling as though I am fiddling while Rome burns, for these larger questions are timely ones, and variants of them turn up frequently in discussions of American and Western culture today. Here I am, happily studying Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, Constantine and the triumph of Christianity, and Garibaldi and the spread of modern liberal political principles, while American academics with loud voices attack Greece, Rome, and their legacies as having justified imperialism, aristocracy, slavery, xenophobia, and male chauvinism. As it seems to them, we live in a world of structural racism, inequality, and oppression, and our western heritage is a major source of these crimes. It is thus important for them that Roman history be taught as a catalog of injustices especially because doing so helps to prepare students to look at the United States in the same way: as they see it, the US came into being to extend slavery, and, to do so, empowered its white leadership and seized a continent from Native Americans. So says the New York Times 1619 Project. Or, as syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts characterized America’s history in his column last week, it’s a history of “genocide, land theft, enslavement, rape, oppression and assault,” and he wants high school students to learn this fundamental truth.
I don’t agree, of course, but I’m not proposing that Get Ready for Rome become a blog site for contemporary debates about racism and oppression in the United States. To the contrary! But since the Western Tradition is often invoked in these wars of words, allow me a short sketch to explain a little further why I think getting to know Rome better will help one understand the current culture wars in the US.
In the Woke view, linking the United States to allegedly great traditions handed down from Greece and Rome used to be a way of promoting loyalty to a corrupt order, like this: Rome was great; the US is based on its legacy from Rome; therefore, the US is great. Such a path to patriotism would be simplistic and self-serving, but imagining it invites a new reverse linkage that implicates ancient Greece and Rome in the crimes and inequity the Woke see all around them in the modern US, like this: Rome was unjust; the US is based on its legacy from Rome; therefore, the US is unjust. The word “tradition” used to have a noble ring, but all it means in this view is “transmitted injustice.”
As a prominent example at Princeton suggests, influential Professors of Classics see even their own discipline as part of the problem. They seem to think that the study of Ancient Greece and Rome lent support to “genocidal racists and slaveholders across the centuries” and that Aristotle’s complex discussion of the way the soul rules the body helped to justify twisted racial theories. https://paw.princeton.edu/article/color-classics#responses
If this view left it at pointing out that Western History is replete with violence and various kinds of individual and collective selfishness, and especially if it added that indeed all human history, on all inhabited continents, is roughly similar in this regard, I would find it easy to agree. Rome was never home to a Golden Age, save in its myths about the time when the god Saturn was in power, and so too with the West in general. The Romans themselves believed their city was founded when one twin killed his brother. They did not hide the acts of force and fraud that aided their growth.
So bloody and cruel have human conflicts been, and so forgetful of this do we sometime seem to be, that it might be time to begin serious courses on Western Civilization, and on all civilizations, with trigger warnings. In the case of Rome, it is easy to list all sorts of terrible events, some of which were the fruit of enduring practices, including slavery and imperialism. Here are a few examples:
After defeating Carthage, Rome destroyed it, killing the men and selling the women and children into slavery.
After defeating Corinth in the same year, Rome did to the Corinthians what they had just done to the Carthaginians.
Earlier, at the Battle of Cannae, the Romans lost almost as many soldiers as the United States did in the entire Vietnam War, even though Rome had a much smaller population than the US and its battle lasted only a single day, not ten years.
After the slave revolt by Spartacus, Rome crucified some 6,000 slaves to intimidate the survivors.
The Roman people enjoyed watching men, women, and animals die while competing in their amphitheaters, and they even staged spectacles in which prisoners were killed in savage ways without a fighting chance. Their slaughter of animals brought some species to the brink of extinction.
As for Christian Rome, it defunded the army not by choice but because it lacked human and other resources, and its military weakness joined its moral aspirations in drastically reducing the amount of state-sponsored violence it committed on a large scale. Still, violence played an important role in the victory of Christianity over paganism in the fourth century; and as everyone knows, the Crusades were bloody, the sale of Indulgences corrupt, and the suppression of minority beliefs a long-lasting feature of the age.
Even Modern Italy sought an empire in Africa and has had to live through two horrific World Wars, one of which it helped to aggravate, and a civil war fought especially between Fascists and Communists in the waning years of World War II.
The Modern Period has lasted only a couple of centuries, not fifteen as Christian Rome did, and the potential for large scale trouble remains high. Climate change gets most attention in this regard, but nuclear weapons continue to become ever more sophisticated and widespread. A wholly different kind of critique stresses the moral deficiencies of modern westerners, who are said to lead lives that are comfortable but empty.
I don’t think any of these points are secrets, and I don’t know anyone who tries to suppress them so as pretend that Western Civilization has been nothing but a history of one success after another. But these grimmest of events do not tell the whole story, and the challenge is to understand a complex picture, not paint a simple one. I continue to hope that, albeit in small and indirect ways, Get Ready for Rome helps in this regard.
Here are two ways we can add to this picture’s complexity. One is to continue to call attention to the remarkable individuals who turn up from time to time. One wishes for more, but even the rare appearance of a Socrates, a Sophocles, a Cicero, a Virgil, a St. Thomas, a Michelangelo, and a Galileo should make us hesitate before condemning the West root and branch. So too, I think, with Lincoln and Churchill.
It has happened that, for whatever reasons, the West been the home of some extraordinary individuals, and it also turns out that they disagree with one another in profound and exciting ways. They do not represent a narrow tradition of the like-minded that can be trashed in a single judgment. As Raphael indicated in his School of Athens, Aristotle as disagreed with Plato, Heraclitus disagreed with both, and the Moslem Averroës was inspired by both. I would never say we should attempt to imitate Rome or Athens, but the so-called Western Tradition offers a rich variety of competing world views and approaches to life, both in theory and in practice. It would be very much in the spirit of the best of the tradition to offer a new understanding of things, for the West has hardly been static and conservative. St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche are good examples of bold attempts to add to or go beyond the tradition as they found it.
Besides looking at the most impressive individuals, another way route to a more nuanced view of the West is pay more attention to the reasons societies have always been imperfect, whether western or otherwise. Utopian literature shows that it is difficult even to conceive of a perfect society, at least if it’s going to be one of real human beings, and not, for example, to be populated by the perfectly rational horses that Jonathan Swift chose for his utopia. His Gulliver is ridiculous precisely because he is so fanatically attached to a kind of perfection that we human beings have no chance of obtaining in practice. If men were angels, the social problem would be easily solved. That we are not is an occasion for thought, not petulant indignation.
What seems especially to be missing, but also difficult to supply, is a serious consideration of how human nature and political circumstances limit options. Or, more generally, what are reasonable standards for judging individuals and nations at different times in history? It’s easy to condemn Ancient Rome for practicing slavery, but was it perhaps an inevitable feature for a society that lacked technology, had lots of prisoners of war, was surrounded by other societies that had slaves, and had not yet heard the Christian teachings that we are all equal in the eyes of God and that compassion and charity are important virtues? Similar considerations might challenge any self-satisfaction we might feel for the fact that we do not practice slavery in the West today. Perhaps this is because we are morally superior, but modern technology and modern economics have brought to light better ways to get the hard work done. We have the advantage that we can rage against slavery at no cost to ourselves.
Every revolution is aided by the fact that we hear of the blessings it promises but cannot yet see what results it will actually produce. Hope springs eternal, but to be rational, our hopes must be guided by limits set by nature and brought to light by history. If history is studied well, it can help us better evaluate reforms that seem promising at first glance. Western Civ does not show us the promised land, but it offers a wonderful collection of diverse case studies, many of which are studies of disappointments and false hopes, but some of which show us achievements that deserve our admiration, and sometimes, our imitation.
I think I’ve here laid out a pretty ambitious agenda for the future of Get Ready for Rome, which I understand as a way of getting ready for Western Civ. There’s no way I’ll settle the issues I raise, but you might, and they may help you see why Rome has been so important for the last 2,500 years. I regret that I don’t know when this season will launch, for I’m currently swamped with other matters, but I hope you’ll keep an ear out for it. As I’ve mentioned, the website has a list of all previous podcasts, and I’ll also continue to monitor my email account at Wayne at Get Ready for Rome dot Com.