By Tom Quiner
Two ancient cities define modern man: Jerusalem and Rome.
Take Rome. How many films have been released over the years with themes of Roman triumph, political intrigue, debauchery, and religious conversion?
Religion and politics created a perfect storm of epic confrontation between the two ancient cities, a confrontation that continues today as Judeo-Christian theology competes with neo-paganism for control of the public square.
Romans were overachievers in term of imperialism and engineering. Imperialism pumped wealth into a city that had architects, engineers, and artisans poised to put it to good use. They created a city of breathtaking beauty that continues to dazzle modern man. Ancient Rome was built without motors or computers, which makes their achievements all the more profound.
Modern man has a certain smugness about how superior we are to the yokels living in the past. However, modern engineers surely appreciate the brilliance of their forebears who created a timeless city without tools that would have made their task much easier.
Historian Mary Beard, author of “SPQR“, puts it this way:
“Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
Ms. Beard will receive the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill in November. She continues:
“The assassination of Julius Caesar on what the Romans called the Ides of March in 44 BCE has provided the template, and the sometimes awkward justification, for the killing of tyrants ever since.
The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia — a dangerous place lying, as they saw it, beyond the great ocean that encircled the civilized world.
Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from “senators” to “dictators.” It has loaned us its catchphrases, from “fearing Greeks bearing gifts” to “bread and circuses” and “fiddling while Rome burns” — even “where there’s life there’s hope.” And it has prompted laughter, awe and horror in more or less equal measure. Gladiators are as big now as they ever were. Virgil’s great epic poem on the foundation of Rome, the Aeneid, almost certainly found more readers in the 20th century CE than it did in the first century CE.”
What did ancient Rome really look like? Thanks to the miracles of modern science, historians have been able to recreate what the city must have looked like in the year 320AD, as you can see in the video above.