Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Rome?

Part of my duties at Geneva is to teach the Humanities. I teach both the introductory course that deals with some of the perennial themes of human life (adventure, death, love & virtue, cultural change, and "calling") and the quick-and-dirty Western Civilization course (we cover from Homeric Greece to the Baroque period). It is because of the second course, in which my lecturing covers the early Church and Medieval periods, that I have been presented with a question that did not particularly bother me as an undergraduate, nor as a graduate student, but has begun to become somewhat of a gadfly in my adult life: why Rome?

Why is Rome so important? Why does the patrimony that has come down to us from them (and from the Greeks as well, although I'll argue that they are not as vital, culturally speaking, but that is for another time...) continue to affect us and our cultural longings and concrete expressions? Why does "Classicism" come so often into the discussions of Renaissance and Reformation works and thought? What is it about Rome, that Empire that doggedly persecuted the Christians and even put their founder to death, that Western civilization is so beholden to?

It isn't, as I've often heard, that they did this, or that, or the other thing well. While that is certainly true (I've been to the Pont du Gard and have experienced firsthand their matchless engineering and stochastic artistry), there is something else. Something that keeps pulling us back, especially Christians, to this strange Greco-Italian Empire. I don't quite know what that is, but I've got a hunch: it is us. It is our history, more than just dates and facts, but it is what connects us -- even disconnected, consumerist Americans -- to the world. History is important, not just for its lessons, nor for its cultural influence, but because it is part of what makes us human (note, for example, that the Old Testament is mostly history: God obviously thinks it important, important enough to shape all of history into a cruciform pattern).

In other words, the day Rome falls from our cultural conscience, the day we forget who we fundamentally are, is the day that the West really ends. I do not necessarily think that the West needs to encompass the world (colonialism and empirialism are unfortunate parts of our Roman heritage), but it does need a place in the world. It is worth preserving, even the nasty bits (we need to remember that the past was not "golden"), and -- more imperative -- it is worth defending: we are fighting for our own cultural identity in the midst of an encroaching colonialism of another kind, one just as insidious as own cultural history. We have made the mistakes, so culturally we should be able to meet this challenge with some modicum of maturity and tact, even as we continue to develop what it means to exist in this strange mixture of paganism, of Christianity, of reason, of the "virtues", and of history.

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