The saga of Rome has never lost its allure. It remains seared in our collective memory. Even in the 21st Century, when history is so little valued, almost everyone in the West knows the names of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra (although not a Roman, she was intimately connected to him), mad Emperor Nero, and Constantine. Only Classics students now study the great Greek and Roman literature, but the tale of Imperial Rome remains with us like a talisman. Travelers to Europe find impressive reminders of Rome’s one-time glory from Great Britain to North Africa, and from Armenia to the coasts of Portugal. The Mediterranean (Middle Earth) Sea was once “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) on Roman maps.
The Roman Catholic Church kept the legend and memory of Imperial Rome alive by locating its headquarters in “the Eternal City.” The Pope co-opted the old Roman title “Pontifex Maximus” (literally, “Greatest Bridge Maker”), a pagan title for Rome’s High Priest of the cult of Jupiter, Rome’s supreme god. The core of the Roman Catholic Church’s administrative apparatus is an adaptation of the late Roman Empire’s imperial administration. During the Middle Ages, what Roman emperors had once claimed as the supreme authority on earth as divinely appointed “saviours” and “sons of Jupiter,” the “Supreme Pontiffs” reclaimed as the “Vicars of Christ on earth”—a sort of Regency status that supposedly gave them authority to enthrone and dethrone even the most powerful secular rulers of Christendom.
Less than a century after the Western Empire’s collapse, the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian sent his best general and finest troops to attempt to recover the lost western provinces. General Belisarius made a valiant and almost superhuman attempt, restoring Italy, North Africa, and most of Spain to allegiance to ‘Rome’ (really Byzantium with its capital at Constantinople). But disease, famine, and war in the East with Persia sapped Byzantine strength and most of Byzantium’s Western reconquests were eroded by local resistance and by the massive Muslim invasion in the 7th and 8th Centuries.
Rome is still a popular subject for dramatic films and TV series. Conquerors since the collapse of the Western Empire have dreamed of recreating the Roman hegemony in some form ever since. Perhaps the most successful of these was the Frankish King, Charlemagne, who took a Latin name (Carolus Magnus ) and title (Imperator) to legitimize his great ambition to be recognized by the Byzantine (“East Roman”) Emperor and the Pope as the first restored “Emperor of the West” since Romulus Augustulus. That boy-emperor’s reign ended with a whimper of ignominy in 476CE at the decree of the Ostrogoth “King of Italy,” Odoacer. Charlemagne gained what he sought, but his personal charisma and aura of anointed power proved immune to transfer to his heirs.
Part of Charlemagne’s legacy was a rump “Holy Roman Empire” which lasted, on paper at least, until Napoleon simply abolished it in 1806 after crushing the Austrians, whose Hapsburg rulers had generally worn the largely empty title of Holy Roman Emperor since the late Middle Ages. Napoleon mockingly said, “I am the only Emperor that the West needs.” The other half of Charlemagne’s legacy was more permanent—France, Napoleon’s actual base of operations.
Here is a short list of Caesar wannabes—Napoleon, already mentioned (although he fancied Alexander the Great above Caesar), Mussolini (who boasted of returning Italy to her ancient glory and remaking the Mediterranean into ‘Mare Nostrum’), and Hitler, who claimed Caesar as an ‘Aryan’ and said the Third Reich would last a thousand years and surpass the glory of Rome in extent, achievement, and legacy.
Why does the mystique and aura of Rome continue to fascinate 1500+ years later? The answer lies in human nature. Human beings are created “with eternity in their hearts,” as the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes puts it. This hunger for eternity is rooted in the hunger for relationship with our Creator, who made us to know and love Him/Her and to be loved by Him/Her. We are made in the Creator’s image, made to reflect the Maker’s nature within and to the creation. We too are makers, creators, formers. We hunger for ‘glory,’ to know and be known to one another and by one another. We are made in such a way that humans must have love and relationship if we are to thrive and become all we can be, each one in his/her own unique way.
‘Glory’ (gloria in Latin) is the manifestation of the nobility and worthiness of the one(s) who possess it. We are all made to possess it because we are all made to be like our Maker, whose glory is manifest in all created things. For some, achieving ‘glory’ becomes an obsession, and, once it is achieved, it frequently becomes an addiction. Seeking ‘glory’ for oneself is rooted in our addiction to being our own gods, because all our ‘glory’ is really borrowed from the Creator who manifests Him-/Her-self in all His/Her works, but most completely and specially in us, the human race which the Creator placed on Earth to be His/Her stewards and caretakers. Humanity’s true glory is in direct proportion to the fulfilment of our actual created purpose.
Having usurped the Creator’s mandate in order to express our own ‘glory’ and greatness in preference to the Maker’s, we are driven to prove our worth and nobility. Most of us are satisfied to get some minor portion of it during our lives, but some are driven by personality, character, and life-influences to pursue it insatiably. Hence Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, etc. Hence the relentless quest for ever more success in their respective fields of business tycoons and seekers of fame and renown (and even notoriety) of all stripes.
Sometimes we give other names to this hunger for glory through extraordinary achievements: ambition, honour, recognition, and renown. We are created with a hunger to achieve some token of worth, but first and foremost to pursue and achieve knowledge of the Creator and the Creator’s works. Within that order, we then properly ‘share’ in His/Her reflected glory and win honour and recognition, but without hubris. This is the picture of Moses descending Mount Sinai after forty days of face-to-face audience with God.
Seeking the right kind of glory is not evil. It is natural. What is evil and ‘unnatural’ is the perversion of these things into idolatry, addiction to adulation, and obsession with dominating others in order to prove one’s worth. This kind of perverted glory-hunting results in actions that disregard the inherent worth, honour, and nobility of others. The extreme manifestation of this perversion of ‘glory’ is the oppression, suppression, and wilful slaughter we see in the wake of history’s greatest ‘glory-hunters’.
Which brings us back to the West’s (and even the world’s) continuing and sometimes great fascination with Rome and its legacy. There are noble things in this legacy. Roman law and jurisprudence is the foundation of much of the West’s legal system. Rome absorbed and transmitted most of what we have of the best of ancient thought, art, and literature. Rome’s engineering prowess was unmatched and a model for all that followed. The Roman military machine was a marvel for over half a millennium and still gives lessons to students of war in military academies. Roman government and administration is still studied and sometimes even imitated, despite its weakness at the top because of its susceptibility to the whims of too often misguided imperial potentates.
It is Rome’s claim to ‘immortal glory’ (the ‘Eternal City’, the ‘City chosen by the gods’) that signals Rome’s spiritual dimension. The allure of the ascent to divinity beckons us. Roman emperors were usually deified upon death—a precedent set immediately after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Rome was not a secular state. It always had an official religion and invoked the favour, blessing, and protection of ‘the gods’ and, after Constantine, of the ‘the Christian God.’
We now fancy ourselves living in a ‘secular age’ which gives no preference to God or any set of gods. But, despite our official secularism and domi,nant worldview of atheistic materialism (among our social and cultural gurus at least), the truth is that we humans are spiritual beings as much as we are physical beings. Even in business and corporate institutions, in social associations and clubs, we speak of the ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ of the entity. Nations and states also have a governing ethos, a soul, or ‘spirit,’ at work beneath the symbols and external manifestations. For instance, we speak of the ‘democratic spirit’ in the West, or of the ‘evil powers’ at work in some regimes.
We may well believe that we are speaking only figuratively when we use such metaphors, but, if we are perceptive and honest, all of us have a sense of what spirit is at work in many situations. Back in the 1960s and ‘70s we talked about ‘vibes’. For those who have traveled to some degree, you definitely feel the essential spirit of a location and even a country when you arrive there and reside there for even a few days. That is why religions use terms like ‘the spirit of holiness,’ ‘the spirit of righteousness,’ ‘the spirit of lawlessness,’ ‘the spirit of iniquity’ in speaking of perceiving the ‘reality behind the reality’—what we perceive on the surface versus what is truly operative inside and beneath.
Rome had an operative spirit which claimed universal dominion for its sovereignty and divine status as “Saviour, Lord, Son of God (Jupiter)” for its reigning Emperor. Rome claimed divine anointing as the chosen instrument of the gods to civilize and unite all the races. At its peak, Rome’s dominion encompassed a quarter of the world’s population, giving some plausibility to its claims, at least in the eyes of Roman citizens.
Rome incarnated a direct claim by humans to establish an eternal kingdom on earth by right of conquest and coercive power. Local gods could bow and be absorbed into Rome’s in order to survive, or be annihilated like those of the Carthaginians and Druidic Celts. The Jews and Christians challenged Rome’s nature at its root. Both paid a massive price in millions of lives for continuing to seek and honour the true Creator.
TO BE CONTINUED