One notices, traveling around Europe, that the Romans were everywhere. I have seen the remains of Roman walls, temples, arenas, forums, baths, theatres, aqueducts, roads – in Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Croatia, Montenegro, Austria, England, and other places as well. The more you travel, the more you notice them, and that big green blob on the high school map of the ancient world, representing the Roman Empire, starts to take mental shape as a reality.
My adolescent perceptions of the Romans were shaped by Hollywood more than anything. Long before I studied any history, I had seen Ben Hur and The Robe and Spartacus and Quo Vadis and Barabbas and Cleopatra and repeated viewings of all the Jesus movies, in glorious technicolor on my parents’ television. I knew about Caesar and Antony and Nero and the Christians and the lions and the gladiators, fantasy and facts all jumbled together. What I didn’t get from Hollywood, or history books either, was that after the legions used their military might to conquer and subdue one region after another, the Romans started building. They built and they built, everywhere they went. Think of the industry! Think of the employment! Engineers to create the plans, masons to hew the stone, uncounted thousands of laborers to haul materials and erect the structures, artisans and sculptors to carve and paint and decorate…the undertaking was enormous.
Looking at so many similar edifices in so many different places, I realize it was conquest by cultural design. A Roman legion holds a territory by fear, but to seduce a province you need theatres, arenas, clean water and public baths. Build a marketplace – for with commerce comes prosperity, and taxes! Build a temple, breathtaking in proportions, stunning marble statues – who would not want to worship there!
Even acknowledging the dark facts of dictatorship, and that the grace and harmony of this architecture was borrowed from the Greeks, I have to admire the sheer scope of the endeavor. Standing under a brilliant blue Provençal sky, placing my hand on a 2000 year old, still functioning aqueduct, roughened by time and warmed by the sun, I can almost feel the energy of all that effort, millennia ago. Of course it came with a price; the irony of the legacy of the Romans is that a military empire known for its brutality left in its wake a beautiful language, and impressive marvels of genius and stone.
©Poets Sinews, 2014, use with permission.