I managed to miss the opening session of the Communications Conference in Rome by missing a bus. How embarrassing is that? Anyway, I will simply say that I decided to stay back at the conference hotel in order that somebody would be here to welcome everyone when they arrive en masse. They’ll never believe me.

While looking at some notes I made at the Colisseum the other day, my mind (or what passes for a mind, at least) rambled back towards pedantry. I keep reading in guide books and other literature in this wonderful city phrases such as ‘the Middle Ages’ or ‘the early Middle Ages’ and I wondered what they were the middle of? Presumably, whoever first thought of them as the ‘middle’ must have thought of some ‘beginning’ and considered his ‘now’ to be the ‘end’.

I guess every generation thinks of itself as the ultimate – the end of history, as it were – because we never know what will come next. But, just as every generation has among it those who think it will be the last – just look at Christian groups who always think the world is about to end … but it doesn’t – every generation sees itself as the only one from which to measure the past.

Rome 3 001But, what if (for example) the 16th to the 21st centuries prove to be the ‘middle ages’ when seen from further down the line? Will future generations have to invent new language to describe which generation falls into which ‘age’? And how confusing will that be for the poor kids who have to learn history? It’ll be almost as bad as having to learn French politics … where all the parties seem to have the same names but in different orders and change them after every election they either win or lose.

I saw a plaque today that pointed to the ‘old’ something-or-other church and one that pointed to the ‘new’ church. The ‘new’ church was five hundred years old.

Funny old world.

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.

Rome 2 007

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.

Rome 2 017It 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.

Rome 2 016When 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.