What have the Romans ever done for us?
This blog entry is a partial transcript of Episode One. (Available on itunes, Hipcast and Podcast Alley).
I promise you I will not recite dates or who said what to whom. On this podcast there will no term or thesis papers read out for your approval. THIS IS NOT A COLLEGE COURSE. Hopefully you are reading this because , like me, you have a fascination with Ancient Rome.
What I plan to do is explore Ancient Rome while keeping a firm footing in the ‘now.’ That means we will be making plenty of comparisons between then and now. For example we will look at movies, art, drama, and government and how each has been inspired by the Romans.
On this podcast we can just as easily talk about the HBO series Rome, interview an author, discuss an archelogical dig, or even go “live” to a gladiatorial reenactment. I will also welcome suggestions from you for future podcasts.
HISTORY FOR THE BRAVE! It isn’t all in well swept libraries or between the covers of a book. Sometimes you have to go out and get dirty to find the truth. (Note*…the photo to the left I had to share with you. If there is anything that illustrates digging up pieces of the past, this is it. Imagine finding this in your backyard staring back up at you?)
What we know about the Romans comes from dirty artifacts, dust covered antiquities, histories painstakenly copied by Muslims to be picked up later by curious Christians (yes, many great western works were saved by Muslim scholars). History comes from poetry, plays, letters, and accounts of wine shipments on yellowed parchment. It also comes from TV news reports of amphoraes (containers) of wine laid out upon the ocean floor, burial crypts, and even letters found underneath a staircase from a Roman Soldiers that missed his home in Alexandria (this story was on NPR). All of these things have been found one time or another unearthed or lifted out from the bottom of the ocean. Even discarded poems by a famous Greek poet was found in an ancient garbage pile.
(Note* Simonides, 550-460 B.C., poems found in a trash pile near the Egyptian City of Oxyrrnyncus.)
The past comes to us through pieces — often broken pieces and we have to put it together like a jigsaw puzzle in hopes of learning something about the past.
At my Mother’s house is a carved relief of Henry of Fifth and his knights before the battle of Agincourt.
(Note* The battle of Agincourt was an English victory over a larger French Army in the Hundred Years’ War. It took place on Saint Crispin’s Day on Friday, 25 October 1415.)
They march from left to right, in a column, their tunics and flags brightly painted in gold, reds and greens. The knights are upon their horses attended by their squires. I found it in a shop in Stratford on Avon (Shakespeare’s hometown). I stared at it in the shop, totally entranced by its beauty, literally stood there for ten minutes before the owner walked up behind me to whisper: “It’s beautiful, isn’t it.” And it was, three pieces of ceramic, taken from a mold of a relief found in a medieval church.
Back in the states I asked my Father for help in hanging it on the wall. Traveling with the Army I had few places to call my own, so I asked to hang it in my parents’ house over the fireplace. It was placed in a gold frame with a light on top, like something you might find in a museum. This made it even heavier and trying to hang it up was even more impossible. After dad had placed a nail into the wall, to hang a hook, we had trouble finding the exact spot where it needed to catch on the wall. Not only was it terrible top heavy but we couldn’t find the hook. If you ever hung a picture on a wall you know what I am talking about. Eventually, he thought he had found the spot and he slowly relaxed his grip thinking it was secure, but rather than staying on the wall it slipped from his hands and crashed down on the fireplace counter with a loud bang.
My Dad’s face dropped.
“Rob,” he said. “I think it cracked.” From his voice I knew it was worse than that.
It had shattered. Without the frame it would have been in pieces. At first I was horrified, but somehow it looked wonderful. The cracks had aged it, making it look like I had dug it up on an archaelogical dig, or stolen it from a cathedral in Europe.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “It looks great.”
The Agincourt scene still hangs on that wall, above the fireplace and occasionally on Christmas my sister Candace decorates it with ivy and Christmas lights.
My point in telling you this story is that HISTORY COMES IN PIECES. We have to take those pieces and view them in historical context. This is where we try to understand the past by looking at the facts and circumstances that surround the situation or event.
I believe more often than not, we frame history in the context of the modern day.
We can’t help it. We are biased by the times we live in. It’s who we are, and how we see the past.
Now, why did we title this podcast: “What did the Romans ever do for us?”
One answer comes from the irreverent English comedy group, Monty Python in their movie:
The Life of Brian.
(Note* In the movie some Judian revolutionaries are sitting around complaining about the Romans. The head of the group asks the question: “What did the Romans ever do for us?” He then receives many answers from the group. The last line is as follows:
Reg: “But aside from the sanitation, education, medicine, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what did the Romans ever do for us?
There is silence for a moment until a voice pipes up: “Peace?”)
The skit from The Life of Brian looked at the occupation of the holy land during the time of Christ. To get the humor one must not only listen to the punch lines, but pay attention to the individuals performing the skit.
I don’t mean their names, such as Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, and Eric Idle, but the fact that they are BRITISH.
If this skit was performed by a Japanese comedy troupe it would still be — with the proper translation — a funny skit, but not half as funny as the fact that the skit is being performed by the sons and grandsons of the people who ruled what was known as the British Empire.
The skit is not about the Romans at all, but is about themselves as a people.
My Mother figured it out. She was born in Maidenhead, England and came to the United States in the late 1920s. This was a no brainer for her. One Saturday Afternoon I went to see the movie and dropped by later to tell her about it.
The following are her exact words.
“You could say that about the British in all the countries they were in during the Empire.”
She picked up on it because when she was a little girl, the British Empire still existed. The Monty Python Troupe used the Romans to hold a mirror up to themselves.
For a civilization like the Romans to have flowered so greatly, only to end by the press of barbarians — (at least one of the arguments) — inspired the English historian Gibbon to write: THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
And for a city like Pompeii to end in an instant due to volcanic ash inspired Charles Dickens to write in a letter:
“Stand at the bottom of the Great market place of Pompeii, and look up at the silent streets, through the ruined temples of Jupiter and Isis…away to Mount Vesuvius — and lose count of time…in the strange and melancholy sensation of seeing the destroyed and the destroyer making this quiet picture in the sun…then feel the solitude and deadly lonesomeness of this place, then thousand times more solemn, than if the volcano, in its fury, had swept the city from the earth, and sunk it in the bottom of the sea.”
Charles Dickens, 1845
Pompeii is still a popular tourist spot. Where else can you see a moment in time captured like a mosquito caught in amber?
Other things are unchanged — for instance the voices that call out from small snatches of graffitti — still on the walls.
Most of the voices are profane, either boasting of sex, begging for votes, or as something as human as an accusation.
“Landlord, may your lies malign bring destruction on your head! You yourself drink unmixed wine, water sell you guests instead.”
Does this speak of fraud in Ancient Pompeii? Do humans ever change?
And then there is the prophetic voice — a voice that speaks the loudest and starngely not only predicts the end of Pompeii, but the end of everything. The following graffitti was found in a city that died under ash and flame in 79 A.D.
“Nothing in the world can last forever.”
He knew. Of course its something that people know now. It’s prophetic simply because its as true back then as it is today. Like King Belhazzar, in the book of Daniel, who saw the writing on the wall — it’s a writing of doom…and the truth of all life is that NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. After all, the Romans, the Pompeians, the ancients weren’t all that different from us. We know they dreamed and hoped much in the same way we do now. History separates us, their pagan belefs isolate them from us, but they were like us — human. They loved, felt pain and joy, had shortcomings and also displayed the traits of…heroes. I see those ancient heroes walking around us in 2010. I’ve seen Hector, Achillies, Jason, Scipio, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Every Soldier, Sailor, Marine, and Airmen needs to have the same grit and determination as any Hoplite or Roman Legionnaire.
The English people seem to understand their connection with the ancient Romans. The English can trace their people going back through Cromwell, Elizabeth the First, Willliam the Conquerer to the first step of a Roman Soldier upon the English shore. I have no doubt that when that Roman Soldier looked up at the white cliffs of Dover there were blue faced Celts shaking their war shields at him. The Romans dominated the English for only four hundred years — a mere pittance of time — out of their entire history, but somehow the English think themselves the inheritors of the ideals of Rome, and the defenders of classical studies and thought.
The United States is quite similar. Though never occupied by the Romans, we fought for our freedom from the British and took the same firm belief that we are the inheritors of the ideals of Rome, and the same defenders of classical studies and thought. As a result we have modeled our entire government on Roman ideals, and built a capitol whose architecture reflects the pillars and buildings of Rome itself.
What exactly were we trying to tell the rest of the world?
–End of partial transcript from Episode 1 titled: “What did the Romans ever do for us?.
(Note* Does this course of discussion interest you? Please leave a comment. Go to itunes, Hipcast or Podcast Alley to pick up a copy of this podcast for download. Listen to it here on the blog site as well.)