Rome and the Romans – Ancient and Modern
by Gaither Stewart
Long before the Nibelungen mythology spread in Teutonic lands, legends and semi-legends abounded in the ancient and isolated lands south of the Alps, legends that say a lot about how these peninsular Italic peoples today think and dream. Etymologists explain that the Latin word, legend, deriving from ancient Rome’s spoken Latin language, means ‘things to be read’. Those legends—those things to be read—chronicle human events that lie within the realm of possibility and relate miracles that could happen and therefore are at least partially believed by all. Handed down from generation to generation, legends evolve and transform in the telling and the passing of time. A millennium before the Nibelungen family, Romulus and Remus appeared on the hills that were to become the center of the star-shaped city of Rome. Perhaps the two boys were not really suckled by a she-wolf—as per the legend—and perhaps they did not found Rome, but nonetheless statues to them mark the city today and their legend is taught in schools and known by every Italian as something to be read. The mother of the two boys was allegedly the virgin priestess of the goddess Vespa, made pregnant by Mars, the god of war. According to the legend, their fearful relatives considered them ‘more than human’ and entrusted a servant to kill them. Instead the servant abandoned them by the River Tiber where they were saved by the she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker, il picchio che picchia. The boys grew up as leaders of bands of shepherds, became outlaws, abducted the women of the nearby Sabine mountains, procreated and founded a people and the city of Rome. I find it remarkable how many legends of different places and time are similar: the mother of Jesus, Maria, and the virgin priestess of Rome, the animals and shepherds in the story of the founding of a new religion and of an empire which itself became a new faith. Man’s molecules, we now know, though stable in number, are by their nature unpredictable. They too rebel and wander, apparently lost, then return to participate in the evolvement of new peoples and races. Similarly therefore, man himself is unpredictable: if he takes one course he becomes a medical doctor and works in a clinic for the poor in an African village; if he takes another route, he might attempt to found a thousand year empire.
Julius Caesar is both charged and credited with the elimination of the early Roman Republic. After the demise of the Republic it was a cakewalk for his adopted son, Caesar Augustus, to create the Roman Empire. Historians inform us that Emperor Augustus’ most important achievement was to free imperial Rome from the threat of civil war by defeating the armies of Cleopatra and Marc Antony ensconced in their love nest in Africa, thus solidifying the Empire. Though it is historical child’s play to view simply as a tool to a political end the myth of the godlike nature of Augustus—born Gaius Octavius, or Octavian, in the town of Velletri in the hills of the Roman Castles area—some historians record that the Emperor was admired by the mishmash of his peoples over which he ruled for forty-one years. Multiple sources concur that the living ‘god-in-waiting’ inspired genuine adoration. Archaeological evidence, too, suggests that Augustus was worshipped in the most far-flung corners of the Empire which he assembled by way of the conquest of most of Western Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and laying claim to all the lands around the great Mediterranean Sea which Romans then called “a Roman lake”, or Mare Nostrum. Rome—city-state-nation—became an empire on the strength and loyalty of Augustus’ pampered professional army, the most feared military force of ancient history. Gibbon labeled the two hundred-year relative peace beginning with the rule of the boy from Velletri as the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. While Greek mythology presents a static and coherent tableau, Roman myths were as a rule dynamic, varied, susceptible to subsequent influences—and also to much fabrication. Myths in Rome concerned the legends that were born not only because Romans performed them, but also because they continually created new ones. Some mythological tales are familiar to contemporary readers, others are more surprising. One lesser known but tenacious legend well worth reading connects Emperor Caesar Augustus with Mary and the child Jesus: on the day Augustus returned to Rome on the news of Julius Caesar’s assassination the sky was clear and blue, but a rainbow-like halo formed around the sun and a bolt of lightning struck the tomb of Caesar’s daughter, Julia. In most versions of the Christian-like story, the new emperor sees within the golden ring around the sun a vision of a young woman holding a small child, for early Christians clearly Mary and Jesus. The sibyl tells Augustus that the boy is the king of heaven and earth. When Augustus relates his vision to the Senate, the Senators believe the oracle and its meaning and support Augustus’ orders that an altar be built on the Capitoline hill to commemorate the divine vision. They named it the Ara Coelestis, the altar of heaven, which in the Christian era became one of Rome’s most beautiful churches, today, two millennia later, crowning the Capitoline Hill and still bearing the name, Aracoeli.
Italian school children know the earlier legend of the meeting by a river of Julius Caesar with an ancient divinity: As he stood in doubt, a sign was given him: all of a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed. When not only shepherds flocked to hear him but many soldiers left their posts including some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding a war-note with a mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Upon which Julius Caesar cried: “Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast.”
The river was the Rubicon.
Those words spoken on the river bank have echoed down through the centuries, convincing most of us that the story, though perhaps only myth, is one of those happenings that had to occur, and that those words were pronounced, words that have been repeated down through the ages to make us believe that—as writers since the Greeks have maintained—everything has been said and that there is nothing new under the sun.
For that reason—that nothing is ever new—mythology is not only disorienting in the long run, but also dangerous. As brutal as the words may sound, we prefer today realism and materialism. Yet you are not obliged to accept that only what exists is the end. If everything that can happen has happened also to you, then you must be naked and alone in the darkness of the deepest night, in total and final seclusion in which the misery is just too great to bear and you see clearly the end approaching,
In the end,however, also Augustus’ hoped-for moral renewal turned out to be mythical—as have all such renewals, bursts of humanism, crusades, causes, movements, rebirths, reconsecrations, socio-moral reassessments, Liberalism—and the Emperor’s Rome remained a great erotic playground whose bed-chambers nightly hosted counter-myths to that of the pious Trojan hero warrior, Aeneas, who after an affair with Queen Dido in Carthage, came to Italy and founded a movement based on devotion to duty and reverence for the gods. We moderns recognize that such Aeneas-like counter-myths continue today as reflected in cinema and literature in which Dido-like temptresses are still enjoyably ravished by amorous but complex heroes who, rather than sailing away to found cities, are held in thrall by their queens. In any case: although in his forty-one years Augustus failed to purify Rome, he planted the seed of a monotheistic spirit subsequently disseminated throughout the Western Empire which became known after its founder as Christianity.
Ancient myths, illusions and legends have always flourished in Italy. But not for that is this less a land of cynics, skeptics and agnostics. No wonder the random images of Rome’s greatest myth, the puritanical Emperor Augustus himself, flitted in and out of my mind. According to legend, his crowning achievement was to free Rome from the danger of civil war … and for that alone he was genuinely loved. Yet cynics view the myth of Augustus as a tool to a purely political end.
Ancient Rome’s legends have been even more exaggerated and embellished during the two millennia since. The old legends were symbolic of something that the Romans once did, performing the alleged legendary acts and creating new ones, too, which recall America and the legend of its victorious wars. Mysterious Ovid the poet of, first, Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), concerning also adultery—a composition that got him banished to the Black Sea—followed by its sequel, Remedia Amoris (Cure of Love), according to which love-fanatic Ovid could jump over huge bonfires. Such a long, high and hot jump was nothing in comparison with the abilities of Augustus who could jump all the way to heaven and back. Other Roman tales such as those concerning Julius Caesar are familiar throughout the world: his meeting at the River Rubicon with the divinity who prompted Caesar’s choice to cross the river and march southwards and save Rome.
Sometimes I, a Notherner, am ashamed of my gradual accommodation to the rampant amorality-immorality at home in Rome, yet I know that at fault is also the city’s history: generalized corruption has come about because of Rome’s long and jagged past. Just imagine a city so old that it can stage a major exhibition on its Capitoline Hill—like the Hill of the US congress—dedicated to its first emperor, Augustus, of two thousand years ago, whose bureaucracy was infected with the same corruption. Roman emperors had two chief economic problems: how to finance their wars and how to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of their 1% at home. Their solution, like that of today’s USA—though separated by two thousand years of time—was corruption and continual war. One war to finance the other, and the bounty of exploitation of the conquered for the benefit of the plutocrats and the arms producers—to guarantee the equilibrium of the PAX ROMANA. As long as the formula worked, the Roman Empire prospered; when the economy failed the barbarians arrived to destroy Rome. Great conquerors have always believed that ‘history is the tale of the victors.’ Another adage that presages America’s decline.
Though ancient and misty and a legend for the rest of the world, for Romans, Emperor Augustus of two millennia ago is almost current history so that the vices of the society he founded make a socio-political model for many of its peoples today. If Augustus could demand a cut, so can I! Astonishing? Paradoxically, many Romans can live their entire lives during which the word corruption does not actually exist. Well, the word exists, but it has lost its significance. It is like saying Rome traffic is unbearable. In the same way in the collective memory of all true Romans—born-and-bred Romans of Rome—the name of Augustus, Roman Emperor Augustus, is fixed from birth. Even though the former emperor’s image might appear misty, unreal and above all non-exportable, real Romans themselves are no less non-exportable. On the simplest level: though like their ancient ancestors for whom exile was a terrible punishment, contemporaray, died-in-the-wool Romans love to travel, many however seem to travel chiefly in order to feel nostalgia for home. Maybe Augustus became the same. Though perhaps psychologically uprooted at home, as a rule Romans stay abroad only long enough to feel the romantic sensation of nostalgia … and then talk and write about it. Much as my own native Americans, I now realize. Once a Roman, always a Roman.
Though Augustus, like corruption and nostalgia, is part of the glue that holds the Italic peoples together in one passable nation, some dreamy religious philosopher has said that the permissive Catholic religious culture unites contemporary Italians more than any other factor. An uncertain claim because first of all Romans for the most part are among the most non-religious people in the world, at least no less than atheist Parisians … even though few Romans readily admit to atheism. Why? Because they are baptized Catholics, that is, Christians! Italian Christians, who ask if American Protestants are of the Christian faith. In reality, Italians are at the most only technical Catholics because of baptism at birth. For Romans being Catholic is synonymous with being Italian, or by extension, being Western. But all the beautiful churches, the stunned foreigner might wonder? Why then Rome’s thousands of churches? For the Roman, churches are to be admired for their art, first of all, a place to take visiting foreigners. Well, then, what about God? God? He is an embarrassing subject, not really discussable, or perhaps only with priests or in the bosom of the family. Today, after two thousand years, Augustus to me seems more unifying than God or the Roman Church.
Modern Rome is a sequence of one civilization atop the other, a veritable mount of peoples and time: Republican-Imperial Rome at the base, Medieval-Renaissance Rome atop the base, and, resting on both, elusive, misunderstood and misread Modern Rome, capital of an Italy united—in theory and in name—only one hundred and fifty years ago following centuries marked first by kingdom, republic and empire, then by foreign occupation, and, perhaps because of that heritage, marked by appreciation for its geographical separation from the rest. Understandable also that the three cities plus one, plus the headquarters of the World Church, confuse these peoples separated from the rest of Europe and to a lesser degree from Africa and the East by the soaring Alps and by the Mediterranean, the Ionian and the Adriatic seas. Perhaps the undoing (for pessimists) or the salvation (for optimists) of the Italic peoples was the great pre-historic geological shift that separated the peninsula from its original African home.
Although sometimes the three Romes are distinct and separate one from the other, the division lines fade under those layers of civilizations, the divisions between which are now submerged under the chaos of traffic and disorderly forgiveness-corruption-based urban development and inhabited by a people absorbed with new gods and deities, rites and rituals, juxtaposed on all the religions of Middle Eastern origin. Moreover, the small country is sharply divided within its borders: the North against the South, the South, exploited by and envious of the North, the cities of Milan and Rome in competition with each other and mutually intolerant one of the other, and, above all, both North and South detest Rome which in turn looks down on the others. One comes to understand also that the eternal of The Eternal City is its inherent chaos verging on lawlessness caused also by its Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician and Byzantine origins that make it so dissimilar to other European capitals. Or as its ancients might have believed, it is its very Destiny to be different.
A widely-used expression in contemporary Italy begins with “If this were a normal country …” as in “If this were a normal country that man would be in jail.” People mean that modern Rome’s becoming a normal European city is a goal yet to be accomplished. By way of example, a typical day of a typical businessman in Rome would be unbearable torture for, say, a normal German or a Dane. An appointment in Rome is not set in stone; it is merely a vague possibility. Interests of the public at large? Hah! The general interests of the community? Oh, God, that old refrain! Voice such ethical and word-propelled considerations to a Roman financial banker and he would examine you from head to toe and conclude you were, first, nuts, and besides, a harebrained foreigner, too credulous for your own good, and in any case untrustworthy, even dangerous, and certainly a bad investment.
Good intentions, personal morality and public ethics are admirable qualities indeed but what exists in Rome is a culture of amorality, antiethics, and illegality. Rome society is largely a society in which it is almost as immoral to oppose low-level corruption as to demand bribes for performance of one’s duty, a society in which the difference between corrupter and corrupted fades, a society in which to be anti-corruption (or anti-clerical, more about this below!) is in essence anti-Italian.
Contradictorily, Italian Catholicism has one eminent and determinant feature: forgiveness. In theory, forgiveness is a virtuous quality, which however exerts a negative effect in practice: forgiveness allows believers to ignore the laws of the land with impunity and reduces to zero the fear of paying for errors like low-level corruption. If you examine why Romans forgive one another easily you often find that it is not for magnanimous reasons. Those who seek forgiveness are afraid of being held accountable for their misdoings and those who give their forgiveness are scared of holding people accountable for their behavior because answerability could be turned against them, too. Moreover, the ease of obtaining “official” spiritual forgiveness from a priest makes the Italian cunning and crafty on the one hand or, on the other, engenders the necessity of defending himself from his fellow countrymen still more cunning than himself. Because of this culture of forgiveness, Italians are therefore understanding and tolerant one of the other and do-gooding and charity-minded, though those positive characteristics are threatened by Europeanization and destined to disappear under the influence of laicization of the nation.
I have come to believe that the “traditional” Italian prefers cavorting in rampant but frank and straightforward nihilism and anarchy in the same way he preferred kissing and “making love” in the once-upon-a-time official bordellos called case chiuse, closed houses, where love and affection were cheaply and safely available to man and boy, while marriage was for procreation and public image. From time to time, the “Reopen the closed houses” slogan is dusted off and brandished as a panacea for age-old ills of insincerity and hypocrisy and fucking unaesthetically a trans in the cold darkness along some consular road. Since you cannot give up love in one form or another, a comfortable, club-like ‘closed house’ makes more sense than fucking standing up in a stairwell or doing your groping parked in dangerous sites in the darkness on Via Flaminia, as if it were the greatest of pleasures after warming up your desires cruising slowly past the rows of trans from Brazil or Albania lined up for review along a dark street and with whom you cannot even converse as once in those warm hospitable houses downtown. In general, as young Italians scramble to flee the country, I feel the deep chasm between the old who prefer good old anarchy and a young new breed who consider their country a rotting and sinking ship.
Romans are a cynical and skeptical people but schizophrenically also children, according to Federico Fellini, who quipped that neurosis was largely absent in Romans because of the general absence of adults. Rome is truly a city of displaced, badly raised children, spoiled by a society ostensibly run by women who secretly consider their husbands, lovers and brothers their children who behave as spoiled children do, storming around and foaming at the mouth, throwing heavy objects through windows and not infrequently killing their women in a rage just to vent their frustrations at their loss of authority over them.
Rome time has always been out of whack. Even the city’s age is a matter of dispute: recent historical-archeological findings have added four hundred years to Rome’s age. Four centuries! Four hundred years older! An unimaginable conclusion on modern time scales! What’s a century more or a century less? If you read the ancient history of Rome, say from the year 900 a.d. till 11 a.d., you can lose a century or two and hardly notice it. Time in the Eternal City slip-slides along, haywire in its cloudy passing, a city not clearly defined in space or in its crazy time, racing ahead or lagging behind or stopping altogether. That time stops is not as anomalous as it might seem despite the scientific fact that the firmament is perpetually in movement. In a way, the slowing of the passage of time is comforting. Yet it is sad too. The idea creates nostalgia. Oh, the old times! When things worked, when food was real, a TV set lasted forever, political leaders were democratically elected and spoke the truth. Yet time does pass. Nothing stays the same in Italy. In the world. “Make America great again,” proclaim the populists. The conviction that things were once better and perhaps will never return creates nostalgia. Each person invents his own way to mourn time’s relentless passage, and the fear of ageing and above all of death. To overcome the realization that you would anyway be too old to participate in the good times … if they miraculously returned. Anyway you would be too late. To my astonishment, my philosophical eight-year old nephew in America, a budding Kierkegaard, wrote me that “some scientists say that time is just an invention of ours so that everything doesn't happen at once, while others say nothing at all exists. But if nothing exists, then the thought that nothing exists can't exist either, so it doesn't work." Is it the opinion of only my nephew or is it common thinking, of school kids in general, bureaucrats, even politicians?
While I stew about his conclusion that not even the thought exists that nothing at all exists, time passes in an instant although things seem to happen, though it does often seem that nothing at all is happening. Nothing. But thinking people know better. On hot summer days in the Bel Paese, newspaper editorialists hammer away at the hidden world undermining the nation. While political prisoners throughout the world are held in secret jails, political leaders are in conference day and night plotting new ways to crush the opposition—Commies, terrorists, clandestine immigrants and anti-Italians and anti-Americans all—and trying to disentangle the financial mess they themselves created. A moral dilemma for the Italian Right: if they harp too long on the fiction of a huge deficit inherited from an outgoing Left government Italy would be in hot water with the European Union, (referred to as “Europe”), but if they admit that the Left calculation of Italy’s deficit is correct, they will look stupid in the eyes of Europe and have no excuses for the imminent cuts in the National Health Service. They can toy with the illusion that they are again safely installed at the helm. But whatever they do they will never be able to finance the Pharaonic projects promised during electoral campaigns—like a bridge across the Straits of Sicily to link the island region with mainland Italy or completion of the high speed railway network to France to bring Italy in line with the rest of Europe … each with astronomical price tags. While Italy’s democratic image plummets abroad and Europe turns off the flow of funds to the weak underbelly of the Continent, one Premier after the other echoes one American President or the other that market free-play will solve all of Italy’s problems, insure democracy, and guarantee freedom and prosperity and happiness for all while at the same time the government ups state control (and saving support) of banks, major corporations, ship building, transportation and the media, and at the same time, illogically, Italian friendship with Russia blooms. Lies exceed the imagination—in Parliament, in the press, at political party rallies. Political Italy is engaged in competition, one side trying to outlie the other, while the economy falls apart, its industry seeks ways to move abroad, banks merge and hoard deposits … aspects of old Italy that suck.
It is said that Rome is wonderful to visit but hell to live in. And it truly is. Romans agree. Most are also in agreement that Romans have no civic spirit. The battle for the separation of trash and garbage has been underway for many many years. Romans who pay astronomical trash collection bills agree that it is absolutely necessary, rather than digging more dumps or shipping it off abroad on garbage trains or on ships to West Africa, and that if the rest of the nation can do it, the capital of the nation should also. So it finally became law: food remains, paper, glass, plastics all in their own bins which were distributed to all households, accompanied by complex pick-up schedules. New garbage trucks appeared. Yet the piles of undifferentiated garbage still line many streets. Likewise the age-old River Tiber: since public transportation is insufficient, the idea of fluvial water buses sounded like a wonderful addition: working people gliding along the river from one part of the city to the other, wind in their hair and birds circling, all rang idyllic, besides offering visitors Rome’s own bateaux mouches. The first small boats appeared but the problems of stations and the navigatibility of the Tiber were just too much. I personally have never been on one and I know no one who has ever been aboard. Of greater importance are the river bridges. But the Tiber. Oh, the Tiber, the Tiber: The River Tiber slices the city of Rome into two equal parts, it seems between north and south, but actually more between east and west. The dirty river and the problems it has caused historically are the result of the city’s disorganization and the lack of social solidarity down through the centuries and millennia. Instead of the giver of life as bodies of water should be, selfish behavior in its regard and neglect of the Tiber has been the rule on the part of Romans, each alien and hostile to each other, they themselves the source of the annual water calamities as well as most of the city’s social evils. There has never existed an official and widely accepted design for the poor River Tiber. If secret urban planners ever had a design for the river, it has remained secret. Therefore it has always been an extraneous toxic, trash-littered, sewage-recipient body of water in the center of the city which for Rome’s people is still an incomprehensible mystery. Perhaps the Tiber’s chief significance has been its unrevealed secret, the enigma of its existence and survival. Were some mad city administrator to propose that citizens cooperate in the elimination of the river, by damming its flow and filling it with dirt and debris like they did the swamps south of the capital and then cementing it over as Mussolini had done in the city of Latina, I doubt many Romans would reject such a plan, even though they would not lend a hand in the fluvial project …chiefly for lack of any interest at all in the river. It can stay or vanish. Seine or no Seine, Thames or no Thames, people do not care. No wonder all attempts to develop a transportation system on the Tiber have failed, and all tourist-oriented bateaux mouches projects flopped.
Evenings, I once stood at the French windows of my apartment on Via Cassia and gazed across the urban chaos toward Monte Mario, one of Rome’s many hills that do not figure among the original seven. Sometimes I used powerful binoculars to zero in on figures moving back and forth inside a window in one of the pastel palazzos swarming among the rises and falls and slopes and valleys. I was observing life being lived. In those times pride surged through my veins when I saw the word ROMA written on the rear plates on my car. ROMA! Curious about the city’s eternal aspect, I began wondering about the three millennia-old word “Roma”. Some scholars have speculated that Roma derives from the ancient word Ruma which meant in the Roman language of the time “breast” or “hill” which seems silly as a name for this city that dominated the old world. Others believe it is the Etruscan word Rumla, the name lent to the city by the three Etruscan kings of early Rome. Serious scholars conjecture that the city’s name is more enigmatic than its apparent simplicity. The explanation lies in its secrets. For mystification is pure Rome thinking; in fact the city, too, has always been a mixture of myth and fact. During the Roman Empire era, the historian Pliny the Elder wrote of an occult reserve name for Roma, known only to a select few. One ancient specialist alleged that to utter that sacred name outside top secret rituals was a crime carrying the death penalty. Now, what more than such a legend to account for the millennia-old follies of the city’s denizens. But that secret name proved to be knowable: a derivation of Ara Volupiae, or Altar of Volupia”, a Roman goddess. Oblivious to the death penalty, a Rome architect once revealed to me the secret name. Through a series of mystical gymnastics, from the intense pleasure of voluptas, you arrive at the Greek Eros, whence to the Latin Amor, which, as even non-etymologists can decipher, is Roma written backwards. I thought I had made an astounding discovery until I saw the graffiti scribbled in black and blue and red on Rome’s subway station walls by young Roman sweethearts who know when and at what time and at what age the word was born: the simple palindrome: ROMA-AMOR, AMOR-ROMA. The secret name theory had developed from a Renaissance idea of creating a second Rome to the north, a parallel city of economic power, leaving the political-cultural life in the fraudulent hands of the Vatican whose presence many Romans today consider the cause of the city’s backwardness and wish it was back in Avignon. In fact in the sixteenth century, Pope Sistus V, the Italian, Felice Peretti, a hard-working but counter reformist pope, had wanted to restrict Rome to “the city of the Vatican”. But that retrograde pope was also an urban explorer. I imagine him driving around in his purple papal carriage peeping out from behind velvet curtains at the urban wonders, his face lined by a conniving papal smile. He stops his papal vehicle, now near startled strollers on the high-lying Pincio from where St. Peter’s and steeples and domes of the city are so picturesque at sunset, now near a fountain on Piazza Navona, opens a tiny window and bestows holy trinkets on idlers who have no idea of a planned city design and wonder what that wild man with the besotted smile huddled inside his mysterious buggy is drinking. Sistus was in fact fascinated by a design of the city in sideris forma, in the shape of a star. The principle points of that ancient star were the locations of the obelisk of Trinità di Monte at the top of the Spanish Steps and the basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni, and Saint Peter’s itself, today still in the same places. Pope Sistus reflected the Renaissance search for the ideal city, the star being the symbol of the sun. Like the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (today’sMexico City) that historically preceded Sistine Roma, Rome too became the “city of the sun”, the ideal city of the Golden Age.
Like Rome’s historians, I must have once been looking backwards because even from abroad my fixation had been ‘historic Rome’. Still, as I came to know my new home, I realized that pure historicism has no heart. “It marches with the victors,” as Walter Benjamin reminds us in confirmation of Napoleon. “And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.”
Italians got used to a powerful police-military presence during the final years of terrorism back in the 1980s and 90s, regular city police mingling with the mobs, fraternally, forgetting their real role—suppression of the people —as if they belonged there among the people on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, on Piazza Navona and in the open air salon of Piazza del Pantheon. After many years, I have come to understand the dynamic of the masses, of their gatherings and their preferences. In Rome, the piazza is the beginning and the end of the street mob, the beginning and the end of most political promises too. Then, magically, from such a scene on the piazza you can slip through a narrow lane, step around a corner and leave politics behind in the hands of the politicians-actors and on most any city avenue transform yourself into a casual flâneur, in Italian city life of no significance. An Italian strolling along a city street has a destination, like my wife who will not take a step on a city street with no specific goal in mind. Or the flâneur is a foreigner, a visiting art historian with guide book, examining Doric columns, Renaissance cornices, Gothic arches, an Egyptian pyramid here, a slim ultra modern minaret there, a Greek amphitheater, the remains of Greek-Phoenician villas. Still, whether piazza enthusiasts or flâneurs, the massive presence of people in movement—like Moscow, and one of the reasons Russians feel at home in Italy—remains. The canvas is broad: government employees out for lunch or coffee breaks, poor kids from the suburbs flowing up and down Via del Corso in search of bargains in the cheap boutiques, aimlessly drifting unemployed and under-employed and legal or illegal immigrants, and rich Asian tourists standing in line for an Espresso in the packed Caffé Greco and sales at the outlets of Europe’s most famous stylists along Via Condotti ,Via Frattini and Via Borgognona: Bulgari, Vitton, Dolce e Gabbana, Trussardi, Ungaro, Valentino, Channel, Hermés, Gucci, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Ferré, Brioni, Burberry Biagiotti—each hoping to come away with a priceless bargain to display in China or Japan.
I often sit together with Giordano Bruno at his bronze monument on the Campo de’ Fiori when I stop there to rest at the end of one of my urban explorations. Our séances are marked by meaningful silences during which he continues to stare straight ahead, his hands crossed in from of him, and I sit on the steps around the monument and listen to the din of barking dogs and the cacophony of hawkers’ cries from the market filling the piazza, and smelling the smells of fish wafting across the piazza and the smoke rising from the ovens with chickens turning on the spit while all around Bruno and me swarms of people compete for space and shoppers elbow one another to be first in line. The Campo emanates a concentrate of the conflicting smells of the city—fruits and fish, flowers and human sweat, and in the afternoon, after the market closes down, the hint of hovering sea air. But mornings, women push baby carriages among the stands and small children race around the stalls, their cries muted by revving motorcycles and honking delivery trucks. Market stands are loaded with the production of the Mediterranean world: vegetables, fruits, meat and fowl from all of Latium, from the south as far as Sicily, from the islands, from Umbria, Abruzzo, Tuscany, Le Marche, from across the seas and the mountains, all exploding into color here in Rome’s heart.
Bruno the philosopher would have liked this place today—if not for the memory of his fiery end here. Though official history has not yet registered a stable appraisal of the philosopher whose likeness has stood here since 1889, I am convinced he would be a revolutionary today and his end at the stake about the same as then. I imagine him as a Red Brigadist, one of those blamed for the abduction and murder of Premier Aldo Moro in 1978,, in reality, I believe, a false flag operation, executed by the secret services, Gladio and the CIA because he wanted to bring the Communists into the national government. The operation Moro permitted the crushing of the Red Brigades and the enactment of repressive legislation and the presence of armed soldiers on the streets of Rome. Two birds with one stone! For the Brigate Rosse advocated exit from America’s NATO and from the European Union, and looked eastwards … ironically the demands of the European Right today. Like Communist revolutionaries of late nineteenth century Russia, the Red Brigade revolutionaries imagined the coming revolution as a thorough transformation, not only of Italy’s political and socio-economic order, but of human existence itself. Like Leon Trotsky they too wanted to overturn the world. Not goals of changes that just somehow occur, but changes they could bring about.
So what happened? What happened to the revolutionaries often happens in life. Changes out of their control. The Red Brigade revolutionaries, the early ones of before they were infiltrated and taken over, thought they were doing the right things to accomplish aims that they believed their political party shared, that is the revolution. They were loyal to those aims. But the reality is that as time passed the objects, persons, faiths, ideas, nations, the iconographic objects in which they believed and to which they adhered betrayed their trust. They and their former political party no longer shared the same goals. The objects of their loyalty became disloyal. The Brigadists became outcasts, denied by their own. In the same way Giordano Bruno. It was easy for sixteenth cenury priests to label him mad. And to banish him. From their perspective they were right, for he was convinced that religion—the established order of the day—was a mass of superstitions. Bruno's unstinting rebellion on all fronts led him to the stake. But his hate for the establishment, his nonconformity would make him also a hero today. He didn’t wear masks. Nor did he just act different. He was different. He would have rebelled against any system. He would have opposed capitalism like the Black Plague. He would have fallen on the barricades of Paris in 1968 ... and he would have fallen with the Red Brigades in the Italy of the 1970s. His extravagances were part of his method. Bruno thought in universal terms. He would have labeled barbaric the retrograde dumbing-down of Americans who like the priests of five hundred years ago reject true knowledge. Those sixteenth century priests were incapable of understanding their own stupidity, false faiths and beliefs. Ignorant people, they would have gleefully torched the whole Renaissance.The priests who burned Bruno would rejoice in the people’s ignorance as does the establisment today.
You are tempted to compare Bruno to Lenin, both heroic in their dedication to their beliefs. Both revolutionaries but with differences. At the moment they make the revolution, revolutionaries believe they are breaking through the continuum of history. The red brigadists believed they were exploding history. French revolutionaries even introduced a new calendar. Though Lenin lived the revolutionary life, he was a realist. Liberté Egalité Fraternité interested him chiefly as a slogan. His revolution had no thoughts about Utopia. His struggle was for the creation of a society with less inequalities than in capitalism, while also guaranteeing man a minimum of little evils. But I doubt he came to believe justice imaginable, which as a realist he must have understood would require blindness to man’s nature. Lenin tended to limit sociopolitical systems to two: communism and anticommunism. His communist state aimed at more equality and applied more limits on man’s evils; anticommunist states aimed at less of both. Some Russian Communists believe Lenin’s chief accomplishment was to take over a failed capitalist Russia and create an anti-capitalist state in its place. Eventually his new state would change but it would remain Russia. Lenin was in a hurry. He had little time for fluff and frills. Also Marx understood revolution in a similar way to Lenin. The leap ahead in time is a dialectical one: history is not homogeneous; time is always now … though different than before: America announced the age of the individual and the American dream; yet the state has never had more powers of suppression. An extraordinary historical contradiction.
Bruno too was a revolutionary but it was his morality that was revolutionary … though never abstract. He called his morality a heroic furor. Bruno was not only a philosopher, he too was a hero of his times. He grasped the unity and infinity of everything. All is all, he believed. Like beauty and ugliness, like truth and lie, like good and evil. In the plurality of the world he lived in, sins seemed so petty. He discouraged efforts of selection as useless. He opposed the sense of differences and nuances in things. He doubted a difference between good and evil both of which are present in everything. Thus the notion of evil tends to disappear and all is one. Every soul and spirit has a certain continuity with the spirit of the universe. Everything has divinity latent in it. Everything that makes up the differences is pure accident. So everything is in perfect unity. Good and evil are united. No wonder he opposed the tyranny of his day. The archaic beliefs. The primitive superstitions. The paranoid obsessions. The ridiculous lies of the powerful. Mankind’s long line of misery. The false morality and the corruption of the clerics. And no wonder they burned him. The price tag on morality has always been high. Such beliefs recall an impressive Goethe quotation: Ein guter Mensch in seinem dunklen Drange ist sich des rechten Weges wohl bewusst. A good man in the depths of his instinct is quite aware of the right way. Bruno’s thought was immeasurably rich. What for him was the good, for Church power was evil. What was evil for Bruno was the evil nature of ‘the good’ that existed in that Church … and therefore also in most people. In the same way he said that the earth was not flat and prayer useless … and good and evil are relative. Bruno has been called the ‘forgotten philosopher’ who predicted infinite life and that the sun was only one star among many thousands which like our sun have many planets around them most probably inhabited by living beings. His ideas about infinity earned him the stake. Near today’s monument. Five centuries ago. Now he is nearly forgotten even though he was the intellectual peer of the greatest thinkers. A multicellular creature-thinker whose universe foreshadowed ours today. Giordano Bruno’s thinking was so consistent that he seemed inconsistent to his critics. For reactionaries of then as of today morality itself is revolutionary. In that sense,, heroes are never part of the crowd. They soar high above. In the clouds. In the beyond. Alone.
Rome does not seem to love its real heroes. Romans love heroes at first. But not for long. This is a city of of priests and kings, and according to interpreters like Fellini, clowns and crowds. Rome’s heroes quickly become outcasts like the Tribune Cola di Rienzo who in the fourteenth century tried to restore the Commune and save the city from battles between the papacy and the aristocracy. Instead the people killed him. hung his body ignominiously and burned it. Later then Rome erected a monument to him that stands at the foot of the Capitoline Hill and named in his memory a main shopping street in the prestigious Prati district, Via Cola di Rienzo. That's why Rome is considered so little literary; they burn their heroes or throw them out of windows onto their Sanpietrini stones. Defenestration too is an old Rome story. But such is not the stuff of literary heroes. Contradictorily, unhappiness is less celebrated in Rome's culture than are rites of life. Too intent on their well-being for self-contemplation, Romans do not reflect on unhappiness enough for meaningful literature. They are too egocentric, cynical and cunning for poetry. Poets come from somewhere else.
Rome today is a rather godless city of silent and empty churches with frescoes and madonnas and images of popes and cardinals on its facades … but with few heroes. Real Romans are plebs, who fall for charismatic leaders. But like children, only briefly. In fact the era of charisma, too, is ending—again. As is the era of individualism. Romans are too busy with Sunday drives in unbearable traffic and following each new fashion to worship anyone for long, not even their own gods.
Gaither Stewart writes fiction and journalism. He is a senior editor for the American online publications, The Greanville Post and Cyrano's Journal Today. His works are published in venues throughout the world. His latest novel, The Fifth Sun and a collection of political essays, Recollection of Things Learned--Remembering Socialism are published by Punto Press, New York. He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy.