‘Rome’ Isn’t Just Television. It’s Us.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Ni­cholas Meyer

Afriend of mine is hooked on the HBO toga- rip­per “ Rome” and is sorry it is end­ing. He never misses an episode. When I asked why, he said the whole thing struck him as some­how eerily familiar. It isn’t merely that the se­ries re- chron­i­cles the oft- told story of the col­lapse of the Ro­man Repub­lic fol­low­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of Julius Cae­sar; rather, he said, the grue­some spec­ta­cle re­minds him of us.

We Amer­i­cans have al­ways had Rome on the brain, of course — and for good rea­son. Like Ro­mans, Amer­i­cans are a di­verse group of im­mi­grants who an­ni­hi­lated the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion ( Etr­uscans there, In­di­ans here) be­fore grow­ing into a mighty civ­i­liza­tion, all the while bor­row­ing lib­er­ally from other cul­tures ( an­cient Greece there, West­ern Europe here).

Rome was much on the minds of the Found­ing Fa­thers, all of whom — even the com­par­a­tively un­e­d­u­cated Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton — were familiar with the clas­sics. Wash­ing­ton’s fa­vorite play was Joseph Ad­di­son’s riff on Seneca’s Cato. In strate­giz­ing how to beat the Brits, Wash­ing­ton was likened, and likened him­self, to Fabius, the Ro­man gen­eral who ul­ti­mately man­aged to de­feat Han­ni­bal by run­ning away to fight an­other day — Wash­ing­ton’s spe­cialty. Later he al­lowed him­self to be­come a mem­ber of the newly cre­ated So­ci­ety of the Cincin­nati, named in me­mory of an­other heroic Ro­man.

Our own Se­nate de­rives from the Ro­man model, and most of our pub­lic ar­chi­tec­ture is clas­si­cally in­spired as well, thanks to Thomas Jef­fer­son’s in­fat­u­a­tion with Pal­la­dian sym­me­try. Wash­ing­ton’s build­ings and most of our state capi­tols, as well as big- city court­houses and post of­fices, are re­plete with col­umns topped Dor­i­cally or Ion­i­cally.

In Wash­ing­ton, the mon­u­ments are typ­i­cally Ro­man. If you study Abra­ham Lin­coln’s chair at the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial, you will see that be­neath his hands on the arm­rests are the bound sticks known as fasces — in­spired by the Ro­man ob­ser­va­tion that one stick or stake is weak but bunched to­gether and bound, they form a sturdy unit — surely a post- Civil War metaphor in stone for the idea that in union there is strength. ( Un­hap­pily, the fasces were sub­se­quently ap­pro­pri­ated by Ben­ito Mus­solini and his Fascisti, and now have more sin­is­ter as­so­ci­a­tions.)

In ad­di­tion to th­ese specifics, the Found­ing Fa­thers held up an ab­stract no­tion of Virtue, mod­eled along Ro­man con­cep­tions of the word: of right and self­less ac­tion on be­half of the peo­ple and the repub­lic.

When Congress emerged in 1787 af­ter spend­ing three months be­hind closed doors ( where mem­bers were os­ten­si­bly re­vis­ing the Ar­ti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion), Ben­jamin Franklin was asked, “ What have you given us, Dr. Franklin?” He replied: “ A repub­lic — if you can keep it.”

There’s the rub. Re­publics are hard to sus­tain, re­quir­ing as they do a con­tin­ual in­fu­sion of Virtue and com­mit­ment to self­less, in­cor­rupt­ible pub­lic ser­vice — as dif­fi­cult then as now. The Ro­man Repub­lic be­gan its at­ten­u­ated tran­si­tion to em­pire fol­low­ing the death of Cae­sar and war among the First Tri­umvi­rate ( all col­or­fully re­told in the HBO se­ries). And, wouldn’t you know, it all came to grief over the Mid­dle East. Marc Antony, sent to Egypt to ob­tain grain for famine- stricken Ro­mans, fell for the se­duc­tive Cleopa­tra.

Here is a more melan­choly par­al­lel. Was Ahmed Cha­l­abi our Cleopa­tra, and did we fall for him? In the clas­sic tra­di­tion of hubris bring­ing the hero to grief, did we over­reach when we took on Iraq?

As, one by one, our civil lib­er­ties and repub­li­can tra­di­tions are erased, as our ad­ven­tures in for­eign lands end in tragedy, we can see in “ Rome” a mir­ror, as it were, held up to our­selves. Amer­i­cans seem pre­oc­cu­pied ( like the Ro­mans in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances?) with va­ri­eties of self- in­dul­gence and deca­dent game- play­ing, star­ing at our plasma TVs the way Ro­mans spent days at the Coli­seum ( the first TV — one chan­nel), or gorg­ing our­selves over­weight at McDon­ald’s and fid­dling with our Sony PlayS­ta­tion 3s while some­thing burns.

Is deca­dence an ex­pres­sion of hope­less­ness? Are the bar­bar­ians al­ready at the gates? Have we — like the Ro­mans — paved the way for them? The se­ries is over, but the Ro­man mal­ady lingers on.

I won­der if this is what my “ Rome”- ad­dicted friend had in mind. Was watch­ing the show like star­ing at a ter­ri­ble car ac­ci­dent — with us in the car?

nicholasmq@ ya­hoo. com


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