Rome. The very name conjures up images of golden cuirass clad men riding painted horses as they enter the city to the cheers of thousands lining the main street to watch the procession of victorious warriors. If you sit still for a moment and meditate on the name of the Eternal City, you, too, will hear the pounding of a thousand horse hooves and feel the vibration of a million voices as they clamor for their heroes—heroes who once again claimed a distant land for the Empire, an empire whose echoes will outlast their lives, but continue, even In death, to reverberate through the millennia.
Women dressed in fine silks imported from China, a land of legend whose most tangible proof of existence was worn by those at the top of the social ladder. Silk, bursting with all colors was reserved for the wives of the emperors and even the emperors themselves, validation of their superiority to those living quite literally beneath them. The Palatine Hill overlooked the sprawling and overcrowded urban capitol, elevating the elite above the milling hordes of people below who filled it like worker ants in a bustling colony.
Commoners, whose dress consisted mostly of a one-piece tunic and worn sandals crammed the city streets for even a glimpse of their heroes while thieves took advantage of the abandoned and irregularly placed enclaves to enrich themselves at their victim’s expense.
Some one million people traversed the streets of Rome, with more clamoring for entry; an entry to a world much better than that which was outside the confines of the empire and guarded diligently by the ever-faithful Roman legions, until the money ran out beginning in the late 3rd century A.D. and begat an incoming flood of humanity that would overrun and conquer what once was.
The empire itself, a loose collection of large cities scattered throughout Western Europe, was made up of people of all kinds. Multi-colored faces and local traditions and culture flourished in those golden days of empire, connected by cobblestone roads, wooden bridges, tiled roofs and even man-made waterways.
Religions also flourished, with Christianity flowering alongside local pagan beliefs handed down through the centuries from ancient peoples long populating the lands of the empire before it’s existence. Even the trees had magic in those days, a magic gradually replaced by the one God of the Hebrews and Christ of the Christians.
Rome, with its lush gardens and flowing water supply guaranteed by above ground aqueducts, served as a beacon for what man could accomplish in this world of lead and stone. It was the epitome of accomplishment and conquest, and of excess; an excess brought about by superior ability and desire. How could one not revel in overabundance when the entire world bends the knee to the great empire? To be sure, the Han Dynasty in China, and even the Mauryan empire of India could lay claim to their greatness as well, but it’s Rome, and only Rome, that continues to stir the imagination of people in their time, and ours; the Eternal City, remaining true to its name throughout the passage of time.
Rome was not without its problems though. What great nation which surpasses any understanding is not without problems? Greedy and ambitious leaders willing to gamble their very lives to increase their influence and wealth permeated not only the streets of Rome but the very sinews of the Empire itself…its government. How many times did the great orator Cicero, warn of Roman excesses? How often did Emperors, given that title not through earning it but through inheritance, squander the bounty they were given as they reached for even more? Excess begets excess it seems, and Rome’s leaders ignored the examples of their predecessors, many losing their lives through outright murder or assassination; in some cases by the very people who were supposed to guard their royal lives.
There were a few who rose above this predilection for more; Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic statesman and author of The Meditations springs to mind. His was a mind unmoved by what Rome offered, turning into himself for answers rather than the bottom of a cup of wine or the beauty of women, both in abundant supply and his for the taking. He preferred to live a life of contemplation, and govern an empire of empathy, both of which died after his own demise.
Even the mighty Caesar, immortalized by Shakespeare was not immune to what Rome offered, willingly partaking in most excesses but still managing to keep Rome focused on what mattered most…the people. In the end, jealous Senators and even one he referred to as his son, Marcus Brutus, killed him for he threatened their power. They accomplished their objective, stabbing him over thirty times, the final blow being dealt by Brutus himself. Betrayal should not be the last thought for one’s life but it was for Caesar; his mind crying as his body died by his wounds, both self-inflicted and from without.
There was Nero, allegedly fiddling while Rome burned but more likely simply happy it was gone. Caligula, Commodus, and many others suckled at the nipple of Rome only to be castigated and eventually killed for abusing their mother.
The average Roman was quite aware of who they were and when they were. They knew they lived in extraordinary times, and in an extraordinary place. They remembered what got them there for a few successive generations, only to forget and allow their own greed, internal divisions, either made up or real, bring them to their end. They forgot that it was the people all along, even those of differing backgrounds, who were the lifeblood of the once and future Empire, allowing themselves to be swept up in a partisan divide; the empire itself becoming divided physically and spiritually by the third century A.D. which played a great hand in their downfall.
Life was not easy for those people, just as life is not easy for anyone, even today, but they did realize where and when they were and what surrounded them. They knew, despite their differences that in the end, they were Roman. Once that was forgotten, Rome was lost.
Since its demise by the combined factors of internal dissension, a ruined economy, and unfettered access and entry into the empire by the barbarian hordes, it was only a matter of time before Alaric came over the hill in 407 A.D. to sack the once-great city.
After that, it was others that entered, eventually taking over and destroying what was left, as vultures feast on the carrion left behind on a hot desert day. Western Rome was to be no more; a dream in the minds of men and women forever.
In the East, the Byzantine Empire remained intact until 1453 A.D., but does one think of anything other than Rome? In certain ways, the Byzantine empire surpassed that of Rome, but not in one crucial way—our collective memory. It is the romance of the great empire, the dream of what once was that fuels our imagination and every so often rekindles the dream of Rome. That great city and great empire will never leave our collective memories for it is as much a part of us as we are of it; both prisoners of time and our own minds. There is no going back, however, as time stops for no one, not even the imaging ice to creations of man.
So, here we sit; we moderners dreaming dreams of empires long past but covered with the sands of time. We become lost in the romance of Rome; it colors our thoughts and clouds our minds. We search for answers in our own time by searching the past. The answers are there, we simply refuse to listen, believing we are the superior simply by nature of when we are.
We ignore the realization that, like Rome, we shall pass on; our memories and accomplishments will turn to dust as did Rome’s. The difference is that they will not speak of us in reverent tones, but rather with dismay that we allowed ourselves to decay from within, disregarding the examples of the past. They will not dream of us or our timeline, but relegate us to little more than a passing episode. For the now, that might be the unkindest cut of all.