The Glory That Was Rome
By Patrick F. Cannon
Although the date is obscure, Rome was founded by two young babies named Romulus and Remus, who apparently were abandoned by their mother on the banks of the Tiber River. A wandering she-wolf heard their pitiable cries and stopped for a look-see. The little tikes were soon sucking away at her teats, which awakened her maternal instincts. They grew into big strapping fellows and protected the wolf in her old age. When she died, they buried her beneath what became one of the Seven Hills of Rome, the Canine.
The brothers eventually ventured forth and found wives, returning to found a settlement along the banks of the Tiber that eventually grew into a great city. The Romans were always grateful to them. Because Romulus was the elder, he became known as the Father of Rome; Remus became the Uncle.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but by 509 BC the republic was established. The very next year, Lars Porsena of Clusium assaulted Rome. He might have succeeded had it not been for the brave Horatio, who held them at the only bridge spanning the Tiber in those days. Lars was so devastated by the defeat that he kept retreating until he got as far as modern day Sweden.
For the next few hundred years, the Romans set about establishing a pretty big empire. Their main enemies were the Carthaginians, whose base was in North Africa. While the Romans were busy conquering the Greeks and the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Carthaginians were taking the great circle route through Spain and Southern France. In 217 BC, their great leader Hannibal crossed the Alps with his famous war elephants, striking fear into the hearts of the Romans. Because of this, the battles came to be known as the Panic Wars. Ultimately, the elephants died without seeing Rome and the tide of war swung to the Romans. The later battles were so small that they were styled the Punic Wars.
It should not be supposed that the Romans were merely good soldiers. They invented the paved road, the arch, and sanitary water and sewer systems. The first sanitary engineer was the great Commodius, who was troubled that he was drinking the same water from the Tiber that his fellow Romans were peeing in (and worse) upstream.
With better sanitation, Romans lived longer than their enemies, and despite the invention of the tenement, Rome was soon bursting at the seams. As is the case with modern Japan, it was decided that a portion of the population had to be out of the country at all times to reduce overcrowding. Their numbers were legion, which became the name of the resulting tour groups.
Regrettably, Rome’s neighbors weren’t ready for the influx of tourists and tended to resist their incursions. This led, after the Romans armed themselves, to the first tourist invasions. Eventually, they conquered most of what are now Western Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. They built roads as they went and soon all of them led to Rome. Roman law was everywhere established and it was said that a Roman citizen was safe anywhere he chose to go, except perhaps Scotland.
Alas, the glory days of the republic were not to last. When Roman generals had conquered the entire known world, they became restless and out of sorts and began squabbling among themselves. Eventually, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were the only three left and ruled jointly. While Julius was away conquering part of the unknown world (Britain), Pompey seized power for himself. Caesar soon tired of the British fog and rain (which seemed to turn the natives blue) and returned to the Gaulish Riviera, where he was astonished to find a message from the Senate telling him that he had reached the mandatory retirement age. He took this badly and decided to confront the Senate. Taking his legions with him, he began his journey, only to get another message warning that if he crossed the Rubicon River he would be found in contempt of the Senate.
Since his legions were more numerous than the Senate, he crossed the Rubicon and burned his bridges behind him. There was now no going back and Caesar swept all before him. Pompey fled to Greece, was defeated there and ended up in Egypt. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Cleopatra had him killed. As a reward, Caesar favored her with his amorous attentions. She had trouble with the birth of his child and it had to be delivered by opening an incision in her tummy, an operation that is now called a Caesarian section.
Back in Rome, Caesar became a virtual dictator. With the republic thus threatened, Brutus and Cassius (he of the lean and hungry look) assassinated Caesar, but made the mistake of letting Marc Antony give the funeral oration. When they reviewed the script, it seemed OK, but Antony delivered it with such dripping sarcasm that the mob soon turned against the hapless assassins and they had to flee to Greece. They forgot that this hadn’t worked for Pompey. As the poet Cicero so aptly said: “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Marc Antony was also to learn this bitter lesson. He formed a partnership with Octavian and Lepidus (known as the “beetle browed”), but made the mistake of going to Egypt and getting involved with the seductive Cleopatra. While Antony was dallying, Octavian squashed Lepidus like a bug and took ship to deal with Antony. He defeated Antony’s fleet at Actium in 31 BC. Not wishing to be dragged back to Rome in chains for the amusement of the mob, Antony committed suicide. Heartbroken, Cleopatra grabbed a handy snake and did the same.
Octavian changed his name to Augustus to suit his new stature and became the first Roman Emperor. His successors were a decidedly mixed lot. Caligula invented a new way to write Latin, but also had his horse made a Senator. As he said, “the place is full of horse’s asses anyway.”
Nero invented urban renewal, but took a shortcut and burned Rome before rebuilding it. Increasingly, assassination became to favored way to change governments. By 238 AD, it got out of hand. In that year alone, Rome was ruled by Maximus, Gordian I, Gordian II, Pupienus (a real shit), Balbinus and Gordian III, who finally cut the knot and ruled until 244 AD.
Many of the emperors had themselves named Gods, which somewhat cheapened the religion of the day. It must be said that the Romans already had more than their share of Gods. They had myth-appropriated all the Greek deities, simply changing their names, and added a few of their own. All of this created a great deal of work for sculptors and architects, but soon the highways and byways were clogged with shrines. Because they had at least to say a brief prayer at each of the shrines, the Roman Legions began taking longer and longer to reach their outposts facing the barbarians, with increasingly dire results.
Had they but known it, the answer to their prayers was close at hand. First, one of their subject peoples were the Hebrews, who long had espoused the one-God theory. The reason for this is unclear, but may have had something to do with their nomadic life. One God, after all, is pretty portable.
Since the Hebrews seemed content to keep their God to themselves, the Romans didn’t see them as much of a threat. But when the followers of a Hebrew named Jesus Christ – whom the Romans had crucified to keep peace with the Hebrew priests, who considered him a rabble rouser – began touting him as the Son of God throughout the Roman world, that was a bit much.
The Christians, as they called themselves, had a new wrinkle on the one-God idea. They still claimed there was one God, but he had three personas: God the father, God the son (the heretofore mentioned Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. No one really knew what God the Father looked like. Jesus, on the other hand, was known to have been beardless and have long hair and blue eyes. Oddly enough, he looked more like an Englishman than a Jew. The Holy Spirit didn’t look like anyone, because he was invisible.
Because it was less confusing than the Roman system of a God for every occasion, and you didn’t have to buy as many statues, Christianity appealed to the poorer elements in the Empire. While the Romans were inclined to be tolerant, increasing pressure from the sculptors and architect’s guilds convinced the Emperors that business was bound to suffer, so they outlawed the budding religion. It must also be said that Christianity didn’t encourage people, even Emperors, to suddenly decide they were Gods too.
History is often a matter of happy coincidences. The banning of the new religion coincided with the rise of a new entertainment industry in Rome. Chariot races had long been popular, as had battles to the death between Gladiators. As the Empire expanded, generals increasingly brought back wild animals like Lions and Tigers. Zoos were established, but weren’t too exciting, as the wild beasts slept most of the time, a problem at zoos to this day.
Many Christians were caught and simply crucified, with their bodies given to the zoos as cheap and convenient meat. The Lions and Tigers seemed to enjoy these treats and some unknown impresario put two and two together and came up with the idea of saving both the labor and materials used for crucifixions by feeding the Christians directly to the big cats in the Coliseum. The mob loved the new event and the culminating event of the season become known as the Supper Bowl.
Alas, the Emperor Constantine put the kibosh on this popular event by legalizing Christianity. He even became a Christian himself, although he prudently waited until he was dying, thus becoming the first known deathbed convert.
The majestic Coliseum sadly fell into disuse. It still stands today, but the cats that roam its ghostly precincts are more likely to be fed by the Christians than to eat them.
The Empire itself also began to decline as it increasingly depended on hired mercenaries to keep the barbarians at bay. It occurred to many of these bluff soldiers that the only way to get a raise was to take power, so they would march on Rome and kill the emperor. So much time was spent doing this that sufficient watch was not being kept on the barbarians, who were soon making inroads on the very roads the Romans had built to conquer them.
Among the many tribes marching on Rome were the Visagoths and Ostragoths. While the Romans were able to keep an eye on the Visagoths, the Ostragoths were a little sneakier. Eventually, they got together and sacked Rome in 476, thus ending the Western Empire. The Eastern Empire lasted another thousand years, mainly because it was pretty far away in Constantinople and the nearby tribes spent most of their energy fighting each other, much as they do today. When the Eastern Empire finally fell in 1456, it was the forces of Islam who did the deed. They treated the inhabitants so foully that they became known as the Turkeys. They rather liked this and have retained the name to this day.
When Rome itself fell in the fifth century, Europe entered what is now known as the Dark Ages.
(Next week, back to Arabic numerals for Chapter 5)
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon