August 21, 2002
In the Shadow of Rome

One of the things you learn when you study history is how much of it isn't actually dead, but instead is still living and breathing in the present, just in a form we don't suspect or don't notice.

Most people think of Rome, ancient Rome, as this fairy-tale like moment in time when Russel Crowe hacked people up in the arena; Charlton Heston was running around a stadium in a chariot; and Mel Brooks was telling jokes in front of Dom Deluise. Everyone wore bed sheets instead of proper clothes, and it was dusty and violent and dangerous and weirdly chock-full of statues. It was all a very long time ago, and with the exceptions of roads and ruins, it is all very, very dead.

Rome is very much alive, and very much with us, hiding in plain site. The hats and sticks, funny robes and weird chants, soaring spires and vast wealth... the majesty and power of the Catholic church are often considered medieval relics, but they're not. When you attend a mass, or watch the pope speak, or wander the halls of a basilica you're seeing an organization whose origins do not trace back to the kings and castles of the middle ages. You're looking at an organization whose leaders once walked with emperors, who knew Rome when she was a glittering white metropolis the likes of which were not seen before or since, who spoke Latin and Greek because Latin and Greek were what person on the street spoke.

The triple-tiered layout of a cathedral wasn't adopted for churches because bishops just liked the extra space. The basilica was actually a garden-variety Roman administrative building, a kind of cross between a market and a city hall. There were several in pretty much any large Roman city. When Christianity was legalized and then subsequently made the official religion of the empire, the Christians needed an appropriately grand structure to house their places of worship. The emperors, being emperors, granted these buildings to the church, and they've been using them ever since. Later on a "transept" was added to the floor plan so the building would resemble a cross, but by and large the layout is still a rectangular one which would've been familiar to any plebian looking for groceries two thousand years ago.

The brief chant nearly every Catholic speaks during the Liturgy on Sunday, "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible..." was not cooked up by a pope or a group of cardinals in some twelfth century discussion group. It was created by a council of bishops in 325 with no less a figure than Constantine the Great, the last truly powerful emperor of a united empire, looking on. He took an active role in the controversy that triggered the council, and, depending on whom you ask, significantly influenced the creed's form. There have been some subsequent changes, but, spoken in Latin, it would be recognizable to him to this day. If you're Catholic and you go to church, every Sunday you speak the words of an emperor.

And it's not just Christians that carry the empire with them. The form of Judaism we know today, rabbinic and torah-centric, became prominent only when the Romans burned Herod's temple in 70 A.D., and predominated only after the complete destruction of Judea in 132. Without these two events, most of what a modern Jew would recognize as Jewish religious practice probably wouldn't exist, certainly not in its present form.

Even if you're not a Jew or a Christian, the machinations of the Roman empire still affect you to this day. When Bar Kochba defeated Publus Marcellus and Tinneius Rufus in 132 A.D., making Judea an independent kingdom for the first time in nearly six hundred years, it set off a chain of events that resulted in the complete destruction of Judea and the scattering of its people to the corners of the earth. Without this Diaspora, this dispersion, there would be no pogroms, no forced migrations, there would be no Holocaust. The events that turned two modern marvels into a monstrous hole in the ground began here, at this point. Without the decisions of an emperor of Rome, one man nearly two thousand years ago, our world would literally be unrecognizable.

The reason we should all study history isn't so we can memorize a bunch of dates and place names, or remember a dry sequence of presidents or emperors. We study history to learn that our world didn't have to end up the way it did.

Realizing that means realizing it can become anything we want.

Posted by scott at August 21, 2002 04:40 PM

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