19 June 2007

Us and Them and the Colloseum

Just came across this blog post by Jonathan Jones at the Guardian Unlimited; this was posted in Wren's Nest on witchvox. Jones writes:

The first people to denounce the Roman empire were the ancient Romans themselves - and their language of self-criticism lies behind every modern denigration of what they did. It is a mark of our ignorance that we fail to recognize this, and if you do see it, the very idea of Rome becomes more human.

Because we are no longer familiar with Roman authors, we unknowingly leap on fragments of their rhetoric as fact - so Tacitus becomes a source of caricatured images, rather being seen as the sublime product of Roman civilisation that he is.

Rome was the first society to acknowledge that it failed to live up to its own values. Greeks never seem to have worried that much about the decline of their city states, but in Tacitus you find a culture in mourning for its self-betrayal. Rome is our true mirror.

The above blog post started out with a brief mention of how we moderns consider ancient Romans to have been nothing but a decadent, warlike and scandalous people. He discusses how many people generalize ancient Rome because all they know about it they learned from movies (even Gladiator commits serious historical errors) or the Bible. And I think he's right. The ancient Romans had their problems of course and they often owned up to them. They aren't that different from us. They had jobs and families and gossip and bureaucracy and everything else that comes along with "being civilized". And they had their detractors from within and without the Empire. And I find it laugh-out-loud funny when modern Americans, especially the right, criticizes The Roman Empire for its wars; it's an outrageous example of hypocrisy of the highest order. But I would go a step further. I would also say that those who mouth off about the evils of ancient Rome are the same people who think that zillions of early Christians were killed in the Colloseum and that it was therefore some kind of litmus test for the sanctity and legitimacy of Christianity. We've all heard or read that kind of rhetoric: the early Christians were hounded and murdered en masse by the evil Romans and were/are therefore of the highest holy order. And there simply isn't evidence for that. Were some of the early Christians killed by the Romans? Yes, that's almost certain. But that's as far as it goes. The ancient Romans, for the most part, disliked the Christians but didn't go to any great lengths to eradicate them until the time of Diocletian. There's no historical or archaeology evidence to support the idea that countless Christians were specifically targeted and killed in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the original name for the Colloseum. And it wasn't even considered sacred or otherwise special until Pope Pius V and Fioravante Martinelli popularized the idea in the 16th and 17th centuries. In early Christian times the place of death wasn't even all that important; it was the place of internment that was venerated. More than that, up until the 17th century the Collosseum was used for numerous and varied purposes, including a quarry, a fortress, workshops, housing and only later as a Christian shrine. At one time members of a particular Christian order lived in one section of the structure but for no particular religious reason. And just to be anal, Christians were very likely killed in other places, not just the Colloseum, but also the Circus Flaminius, the Gaianum, the Circus of Hadrian, the Ampitheatreum Castrense and the Stadium of Domitian. What's the point of this rant? Just the same point that Jones expresses: take the time to read more than just one ancient Roman's book before you shoot your mouth off about them. You just might learn something, namely, the mirror with ancient Rome on one side and modern western society on the other.

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