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