The best way to see Rome is clearly to get up early and get out before the Germans have woken up. (We learned our lesson the other day when a million of them got on the same bus as us…) We got the bus over to the Colisseum yesterday morning and were amazed by the sheer scale of the place. It is immense and puts into perspective any pride in modern engineering. This was built – probably by slave labour – 2000 years ago and was obviously intended to last for ever.
The exhibition is certainly worth seeing before actually going into the place itself, but it also left me with a feeling of some disquiet. Classicists are about to discover just how ignorant I am when I explain why.
Most of the exhibition is a eulogy to the Emperor Vespasian who had the place built. I could find no reference to the labour force that put stone on stone and brick on brick. The civil magnanimity and democratic generosity of Vespasian were lauded at every turn, but there was only a casual reference to (a) his brutal suppression of Judea, (b) the siege and slaughter of Masada, (c) the brutality of Roman suppression of local uprisings across the empire and (d) the cruelty that was at the heart of executions.
What did become clear was that the pagan empire had little respect for human life per se. What it did have respect for was rank, status and particular notions of human value according to role in the state.
It is sometimes trendy for people to dismiss the rise of Christianity as a form of cruel imperialism, but Christianity also cultivated the soil for great sacrifice, human value and great art – despite its terrible aberrations which can also be seen in the history of the Church in Rome. It is sometimes convenient to forget just how cheap life was in the pagan world.
The other thought that occurred to me was the fact that what are now called ‘back stories’ are always complicated. What I mean by this is simply that history is a mess of contradictions and inconvenient truths. Yesterday’s scandalous brutality becomes today’s intriguing curiosity. We read over centuries of oppression and cruelty as if it were somehow interesting but not quite real. We read of gladiators who fought and died in the service of entertainment; of people fed to animals in the service of entertainment; of people wiped out by disease and conflict; and we don’t relate to them as people with families and relationships. And we don’t stop long enough to ask where God was for them in the midst of their human lot.
When Rome declined, was the hubris of its imperial golden age seen as a bit of an embarrassment – the transience of hubristic power? Is our contemporary valuing of the ancient imperial power simply a reflection of our contemporary hankering after power and hubris?
I love what I am seeing of Rome, but it also pushes me to think beyond (or beneath?) the camera-clicking sights and try to perceive the human stuff that was going on – in ordinary people’s lives and deaths.